Even though we weren’t looking after Triana any more, we still had jobs to go to at Charon Bank. Mr. Phillips called us into his office for a meeting.
“I know you are having to adapt a little,” he said, “but I want you to remember that you are not just in this plane as Triana’s parents. You have done wonderful work for us in your own right, we are very happy to have you here and I hope you will continue to feel fulfilled. Just like every other spirit on this plane you are here for as long as you want to be, though I know Triana will still want to have you around, even if she does have her own path now. Tell me, what would you do here if you could?”
I looked across at Steph. We had discussed a few ideas, but had yet to settle on a proper plan. We’d been putting our daughter first for so long, doing anything else for ourselves just felt odd.
“We’ll have to get back to you on that,” said Steph.
“Take your time, then,” said Mr. Phillips. “In the meantime, I want you both to go offsite this afternoon to visit a customer. We’ve had a call from Morior Studios, they asked for you both personally. A down to Earth chat, as it were, to help move things forward.”
That was a peculiar choice of words. I wondered if I was reading too much into it, then realised Steph was grinning ear to ear. She knew what this was.
“Don’t worry about coming back here afterwards,” Mr. Phillips added with a smile. “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”
We drove over to Morior to be met in the car park by Craig and Rebecca.
“Thanks for coming,” said Craig. “We have something you need to see.”
“I never knew you worked in accounting,” I said.
“Come on, Bob, play the game,” said Craig witheringly.
I looked at Steph, who was laughing.
“Very well, lead on,” she said sweetly.
They took us to an area of woodland with a path running around a
lake. There was a lakeside area with cabanas set around a log cabin and
central square, with a pier jutting out into the lake.
“We call this area The Jungle,” said Rebecca. “The lake, cabana area and woodland are among the locations we rent out to film productions, but we’re also starting to develop it with some other interesting stuff. We have a team working on a full set of jungle perils, including a garden of man eating plants that they’re very excited about. It’s like they’re building a crazy, morbid theme park out here. But what we want to show you is up this way.”
We walked a short distance into the woods, over a bridge crossing a pretty stream and arriving at a wide patch of open ground. There was a wooden sign stuck in the ground with a towel draped over it, obscuring most of what was painted. Just visible on one edge were the letters “er” written above “and!”.
“Do you mind if I look around?” said Steph.
“Be my guest,” said Craig. I noticed Steph slip out of her shoes as she prepared to step forward, which might have seemed odd had I not suspected what was going on here.
Steph walked around the edge of the area in stockinged feet, turning to face me as she reached the opposite side, fixed me with a gaze and began walking back towards me directly across the centre ground, which began undulating beneath her feet as she went. I had a pretty good idea what was written on that sign at this point.
Sure enough, as she reached the middle of the area her feet sank suddenly into the ground, leaving her thigh deep in mud.
“Oh my! Quicksand!” she said theatrically, with a wink.
“This is one of our full immersion pits,” said Rebecca. “We’ve optimised the consistency of the mud so it will hold the subject enough for them to sink all the way under without them just floating. There are some bars built into the bottom you can hook your feet into to stay submerged, when it’s time to get out all you have to do is unhook and you’ll float up and out.”
I wondered why she was telling me this with second person pronouns when it was Steph sinking in the mud. She did look incredible in there – we were both still in our work clothes, which in Steph’s case was a blazer and calf length dress which was billowing slightly on the surface of the mud. She was play-acting like a damsel in distress, but with a fun and michievous glint in her eye I hadn’t seen since the last time we did something like this, a lifetime ago in another dimension.
“Oh, who will come to my aid?” she cried. “Who!”
“How do you breathe under there?” I asked Rebecca.
Rebecca looked around, then tapped her nose conspiratorially.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” she said. “We don’t. When we submerge and bury people at the Mortal Masquerade we give them plastic air pipes to breathe through, but privately we call them placebo tubes because they are actually completely useless. The truth is, we only breathe on this plane through force of habit, not because we need to. It’s a bit freaky to come to terms with, which is why Uncle Morbid likes to keep it quiet until the spirits figure it out for themselves. But it’s also really awesome.”
Steph had sunk to shoulder depth as I took off my jacket and carefully moved out towards her, reaching for her hand.
“Come closer,” said Steph. “Closer.”
I could feel the ground shifting beneath my feet. I looked at Steph to see that she was now extended both arms with an inviting smile. I had no idea how I was going to get enough leverage to pull her out, but knew by now that that wasn’t what was on the cards.
“Do you want us to leave you to it?” called Craig.
“Yes please,” Steph called back. “We’ll give you a shout when we’re ready to come out. And thank-you!”
She turned back to me. “Now, are you coming in or what? I’m fed up with you just watching all the time.”
Oh, what the hell.
I kicked off my shoes and stepped up to the spot directly in front of Steph, instantly sinking to my waist. She pulled me down the rest of the way to join her shoulder deep in the mire. She placed her hands on my shoulders and kissed me.
“There,” she said. “That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”
The mud actually did feel quite nice around us. Steph moved her hand down beneath the surface. I felt her slipping it into the top of my trousers, finding my erect penis. I slipped my hand into her blazer to caress the curves of her body.
“Ready to try the not-breathing thing?” she said. Without waiting for an answer she slipped her hand back out of my pants, pulled me close and kissed me again as we both slid down beneath the surface, finding the metal bars at the bottom to hook our feet. Deep in the mud, free of the need to breathe air, we kissed in a tight embrace amidst a silent soup of sensual intimacy, just us and the earth.
We saw Craig and Rebecca a lot after that – I found out Rebecca and Steph had already been chatting socially, which is when they set up our quicksand encounter. We go to get dunked in their testing tank from time to time and also invite them round to our house for more conventional socialising, where they showed us some of the films they used to make, which are definitely something. There was an odd story attached to one of their darker films, in which Rebecca acted out being melted in a vat of acid in a way over the top piece of kitsch horror. Apparently they’d had to give evidence in a murder trial when the film was found amongst the violent porn collection of the defendant, who was accused of strangling his wife to death. He’d acted brazen and cocky in the dock as all his nasty rape porn was presented in evidence, then when Craig and Rebecca’s film came up he lost his cool and starting ranting and raving.
“His wife that he murdered? She’s here, she’s our neighbour,” said Rebecca. “It turned out she’d bought our films to wind him up after he kept making her watch his shitty sex abuse movies. I mean, it was horrific what he did to her and he deserves to rot in hell, but I felt a lot better knowing he wasn’t a fan of ours. Also that she’d managed to humiliate him one last time from beyond the grave.”
We were enjoying our work at Charon and, acting on Mr. Phillips’ advice and encouragement, began planning projects we could do on the side. As we’d first bonded over music we started checking out the musicians active around the post-mortal plane, found a lot of the kind of stuff we like and started promoting gigs and small festivals. It’s a hobby level operation that’s nowhere near big enough to qualify us as creator-overseers, but it gives us something to do when not working at Charon or relaxing with Craig and Rebecca.
Then one day Triana asked us to come with her to the Wonder Emporium.
“They’re ready,” she said. “I need you to help me tell them the truth.”
In that meeting we told Triana’s whole story. She told them all about the cosmic mess of mathematical patterns, human creativity and the energy of life. It was now clear that Lillian Lahey was not, nor was interested in becoming a deliverer, so Triana officially joined the Wonder Emporium as a performer and employee, completing the trinity there alongside Ted and Darryl. It’s a good fit, because Triana the Only Child is definitely a wonder, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my daughter. She’s become an impressive conjurer under Darryl’s tutelage, performing magic to bring out the freakiness of her uniquely childlike appearance.
Since Ted Braxton finally accepted his calling as a creator-overseer the Wonder Emporium went from strength to strength, buying up and knocking through the neighbouring buildings until they had the premises for a performing arts centre where they hold classes, workshops and festivals in magic, circus skills, cabaret and fringe theatre. They have built a following of enthusiastic spirits around the venue, quite a few of the musicians we work with call the Wonder Emporium their home community. We sometimes co-promote with them and other organisations – we even booked bands for a special event at the Mortal Masquerade, who acted out gruesome sacrificial rituals along to the music. They gorily executed audience and band members throughout the night in various ways and Steph got burnt at the stake via some impressively realistic pyro effects. She says it’s her favourite of all the shows we’ve put on.
Triana still moves on souls when called upon to do so, but finds most of the spirits who reach the Wonder Emporium want to stay, which she says is the universe operating in the best possible way. She has no trouble disguising her role as deliverer because those looking always suspect Lillian first, who delights in leading them down the garden path. Lillian once said that being Death was not nearly as much fun as making people think that you are Death.
Triana and Kim still live together. Kim is Triana’s partner, confidant and soulmate. She now works full time as an actor, became a part-owner of Culture Collects and makes occasional appearances at the Wonder Emporium to assist Triana in her act. She still won’t let Triana vanish her, but, true to her word, she has been been sawn in half.
They still think it’s a good universe.
They are absolutely correct.