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The serious apprentice

 The man in front of me had died five minutes and twenty three seconds ago. It was lucky, really, that the dead always needed six minutes and four seconds to leave their bodies. Why exactly six minutes and four seconds? God only knows. And I never thought to ask her. I liked it that way. It was the perfect amount of time to have a pre conversation cigarette. And, in this case, to organise a large towel and throw it over the body of the freshly deceased gentleman. 

   "Who are you? What are you doing in my apartment?" 

   Paul Mortimer's spirit looked ten years younger than the body had. The prime of his life.   

   Right, showtime. 

   "I regret to inform you that you have died, Paul. I am here to guide your way into the afterlife," I said, bowing my hooded head.  

   "What? How? How did I die?" Mortimer said. 

   He did not argue the part about being dead. Spirits knew instinctively that they had passed on. Something the movies got wrong. 

   "It, um," I was hot under my long black cloak.
   Stupid heavenly dress code. 
   "It doesn't matter now, my child. Let us go," I said, looking at the covered body behind Paul's spirit.  He turned around. 

   "Is that me?" He said, stretching out his hand towards the heavy piece of cloth. 

   "No!" I shouted.  

   Paul turned around, his eyes wide. 

   Ok, death is not supposed to yell at people.  

   "You…There is no need, my child. You will not be able to move the cloth, you are spirit now," I said, improvising. 

   Paul drew back his hand and turned back around to face me. In one smooth motion, I positioned myself behind the spirit, catching the vase he had almost knocked from the bedside table behind my back. I could feel beads of sweat running down my forehead.  

   The next time Paul Mortimer spoke, we were just crossing the second rainbow, somewhere between 13th-century Tokyo and the edge of the Andromeda galaxy. 

   "You are new to this, aren't you?" 

   "Kind of," I admitted.  

   Paul was silent for a while.  

   "Did I lead a good life?" He asked finally.

   "That is for you to decide," I said mechanically, remembering the official instructions.  

   Paul gave me a sidewise glance. 

   "One of the best I have seen so far," I said after two more steps.  

   "Come on, tell me. How did it end?" 

   "Heart attack," I said.

   "Tell me, is death allowed to lie?" Paul laughed.  

   "Twice a day," I said truthfully. "Brings me all kinds of trouble with the misses."  

   We were already almost at the gates. The two huge white towers appeared out of thin air as always. Before Paul could approach Petrus, I took him aside. I would not be able to go much further with him. 

   "Listen, the last moments before your death will come back to you any second now. However, once you get to the gates, just tell them it was a heart attack. Even if you remember. They always get causes of death mixed up back there," I said, looking pleadingly at him from under my dark hood. 

   "That bad?" He asked, concern in his eyes. 

   "More embarrassing than bad. But that kind of stuff will stay with you in there. People always ask how your life was, and how you died." 

   "But I…," Paul said, his semi-transparent face taking on a dreamy look.  

   It is happening. He starts to remember. 

   I pitied him. Starting the afterlife with a lie was not optimal. Considering the alternative, however… 

   Paul started to laugh. 

   "Oh, that's a good one," he managed before staggering forward towards the reception window for heaven, holding his stomach chuckling.  

   I looked in astounded horror how Paul Mortimer approached Petrus and started filling out his form. A short time later, both he and Petrus were laughing with their whole bodies (well, spirits) about some shared joke. When the gargantuan doors opened to admit Paul Mortimer, I saw him wink cheekily back at me, wave at the heavenly receptionist and march into the light, a boyish smile on his face. It had been on that day that I, the grim reaper's apprentice, learned not to take death so seriously all the time.  

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