By the time Death came for Aubrey Thyme, she was ready for it. She was beyond ready for it. Her doctors were too. When she reached the age of 100, her doctors had been happy for her. At age 115, they had been surprised. At age 130, they had started to turn embarrassed. And when she was the ripe old age of 146, they had long since stopped trying to hide how disturbing they found her.
“Don’t blame me!” she would cackle at them, prodding at her belly with a happy, wrinkled finger. “I’m not the one who blessed this thing with unnatural longevity!”
No one found it as funny as she did, but that was alright. Old age, Aubrey Thyme had been happy to discover, meant that she could laugh at her own jokes even when everyone around her found them annoying.
Yes, Aubrey Thyme had lived a long life, a very long life. She had lived, and she was ready now. She was ready.
She was ready for Crowley to show up.
He was sitting in the little plastic chair beside her bed. She hadn’t heard him come in--she must have been sleeping when he arrived. But he was there now. His hair was different from the last time she had seen him. His clothing was different. He was the same.
“I thought maybe you’d bring me an orange,” she said.
“You want an orange?” He sounded anxious to be helpful, and he looked hopeful for a chance to help. “I could--a hospital’s bound to have a little shop, isn’t it? I could go see--”
“Crowley,” she cut him off, chuckling. Well, she tried to chuckle. “It was a joke.”
“Oh. Right.” He got a half-sheepish half-grin. “I get it.”
She smiled. “It’s good to see you,” she said.
“Give me the choice,” she had said, forming the words around the piece of ice in her mouth. “I might change my mind once I’m actually close to--it.”
“Let me be a mortal who gets to make this choice,” she had said. “Let me decide, for myself, where I go, when it’s time for me to go.”
“They treating you well here?” he asked.
“The nurses get on my last nerve,” she said, feeling cranky. This was something else Aubrey Thyme had been delighted to discover about growing old: people felt obligated to tolerate her crankiness.
“I suspect they’re just doing their job,” he said.
“Bah! Don’t you defend them,” she said.
It was small-talk. They were just making small-talk. They had business to get to, but it was nice to spend some time making small-talk. It had been a very long time since there had been anyone with whom Aubrey Thyme had felt like making small-talk.
“I need a show of good faith,” he had said, looming over her from his goddamn fucking throne. As he said it, his lips had twitched, not in amusement but something else.
“There are limits to choice, aren’t there, Aubrey Thyme?” he had asked, not really asking. “You’ve certainly impressed this upon me recently, haven’t you? That we go behind people’s backs, when we can’t trust that their reasoning is in tact. Don’t we, Aubrey? We stop people from making the choice to self-destruct. Isn’t that right?”
He hadn’t actually wanted her to answer.
“We both know, don’t we, that you have self-destructive tendencies,” he had said.
He had leaned even closer to her, looming even more over her, and he had said, “Prove to me that you can be trusted with this choice. Prove you are motivated for the right sorts of reasons.”
“I’ll accept your counter offer,” he had said, “only if you can prove to me that you know the difference between self-respect and self-destruction.”
She had swallowed the piece of ice in her mouth. They had stared at each other, eye to eye, across that behemoth of a desk.
“I’ve been expecting you to show up for quite a while now,” she said.
“Deathbed,” he said, and he grew fidgety as he said it. “We agreed on deathbed, Herb. That’s what I was waiting for.”
Aubrey Thyme did not want to cry. Aubrey Thyme had lived a long life, and she was ready for Death to come for her. But, still, she felt the tears welling in her eyes.
It is okay for it to be a sorrowful and frightening thing, to die.
“I’m ready,” she whispered.
“The tree,” she had said, because they both knew how to navigate symbols, because they both knew what the tree had always symbolized, because she had long since developed her plan for her sixth day with Crowley.
“I’ll keep the tree alive,” she had said. “You know what I’m like. You know how I am. I’ll take care of that fucking tree, and you can have that as your show of good faith."
They had stared at each other, eye to eye, and he had tilted his head. They both knew what that tree had always symbolized.
Crowley sighed. He straightened up in the little plastic chair, taking on the sort of posture that was appropriate for a professional. He took off his sunglasses, folded them away, and he looked at her. He sat, like the professional he was, in the chair beside her, and he looked at her.
They looked at each other, eye to eye. And she smiled.
“Aubrey Thyme,” he said, as if following a script, but they had never actually developed a script for this. He was professional enough, she suspected he did not need a practiced script. “How is the tree that you have promised to care for?”
Her smile grew.
“Let me show you,” she said. She reached for the newfangled, ridiculous device that she had on the table beside her bed. It was hard for her to reach it, and she fumbled a little, but she managed to get it after a moment. “I have…” She scowled, frowning as she poked at it. It wasn’t like the devices that had been around in her youth. “I never got the hang of these new things.”
“Here, let me,” he said, and his voice was suddenly so much softer. He was, as always, so gentle and generous, and he held out a hand in order to take the device from her. “You’re trying to access your pictures, I take it?”
“There we go,” he said. He made it seem so easy. When she had been younger, it never occurred to her to wonder at his ease with technology. He always had so much ease, with technology, no matter how much it might change and shift with time.
“You see it?” she asked.
“I do,” he said, and his voice was still so soft, as he looked down at the photos she had stored on her phone. It wasn’t a surprise to him that the tree was still well after all this time. It couldn’t have been. They had stayed in touch, after all. He had offered her advice, when she had needed it. He had known already how the tree was doing, because she had kept him informed about what she had done with her land.
Aubrey Thyme had made herself learn how to care for that tree. She had made herself learn how to view the care of simple living things, like trees and flowers and vines, as a puzzle, as a fascinating puzzle, and as something more important than just a puzzle to solve, as well. She had learned how to accept the slow pace of a tree’s growth and flourishing. She had learned how to attend to the needs of a being that could not express itself. She had learned how to appreciate the glory of keeping life going.
Aubrey Thyme had bought land, far out of town. She had planted her tree in that land’s soil, and she had learned how to keep it alive. She had bought a substantial amount of land, and she had put it to good work.
She had planted seeds. She had planted seeds throughout the soil of the land she had purchased. She had planted seeds, and she had tended to the weak saplings that sprouted from the soil, and she had watched as those saplings grew strong and proud, as they reached up towards the sky, as they grew large enough to protect her in return, to shield her from rains and storms.
Aubrey Thyme had spent a lifetime planting seeds. She had planted seeds, and she had lived long enough to see a forest grow.
She and Crowley had each picked up a pen and signed on the dotted lines. She had signed on the dotted line. She bought her soul, on stow-away, for the price of a tree.
“Alright, then,” Crowley said, putting the device back down on bedside table. “You’ve kept your side of the bargain.”
“So, I suppose I’ll keep mine,” he breathed out.
They looked at each other, eye to eye. She watched him crack his neck, regain his professional posture. She watched him prepare. He smiled, quick and sad, with pursed lips, and he took a deep breath to steady himself.
“Aubrey Thyme,” he said, again, and she could tell he was working to keep his voice even, to keep his eyes steady, to keep his professional footing. “You have the choice of accepting all the love and forgiveness your Creator is willing to provide to you. Will you accept it?”
She listened to him, as he made the offer. She listened to him, and she saw him, and she felt a tear slide down her cheek.
There had been many times, throughout her long life, when Aubrey Thyme had thought about the contract she had signed. There had been many times when she had considered the choice that he would give to her once it was time for it, provided she lived up to her side of the bargain. She had spent decades, walking through her forest of trees, learning to appreciate the life of them, the goodness of the life of them, the ineffable goodness of living, and considering what the growth of the seeds she had planted might mean for the choice she had made to reject Her when she was younger, about the choice she would have to make again when it really mattered.
She had thought about this, and she had thought about him, about her client, about the demon who currently was working so very hard to hide how much saying those words had hurt.
She had never stopped seeing him as a child, a small child, a scared and lonely child who had been abandoned and scarred by the one Being, out of all of creation, who should have protected him. She had never stopped seeing the kindness in him, the gentleness to him, the sweetness of him. She had never stopped seeing the ache in him, the deep and powerful ache to be given the very offer he had just given her, to be granted forgiveness and love from Her, flawed being that he was. She had never stopped seeing him as a young child, worthy of love, deserving of love, needing love.
A tear fell down her cheek.
She loved him.
Aubrey Thyme had learned, throughout the long years, how to love the goodness of life, the greenery of life, the experience of living. She had learned, throughout the long years, how to walk through a forest of her own making, how to accept the peace and protection that was provided by the very trees she had nurtured into existence. She had learned what it meant to be a gardener, and it had solidified within her the answer she knew she had to give.
She looked at Crowley, at her client, at the scared and loving little child she had always seen in him, and she knew the answer she had to give.
She smiled. She smiled at Crowley. She gave him her smile, perhaps for the last time, and she was so very grateful for the choice he had allowed her to make.
A tear fell down his cheek.
“Your choice,” he said, voice breaking.
“I know,” she said, as she smiled, as more tears fell. “I made it.”
He reached out, into the space between them, and he grabbed hold of her hand. He held onto her hand, held on tight, with both of his.
It was the first time they had ever touched.
She was grateful for it, for the comfort of it, for the kindness of it. It could be a sorrowful and frightening thing, dying, even if you’re satisfied that you have lived a good life. Aubrey Thyme only realized, after he was holding her hand, how desperately she had needed it.
He squeezed her hand, and he stayed with her.
“One more thing,” she had said, setting down the pen. “I want you to promise me something.”
“Promise me,” she had said, “that you won’t actually be there at--the end.”
“The end?” he had asked.
She had not meant to fall into euphemism. She had not meant to. She had been surprised, back when she was so young, at how uncomfortable it made her to talk realistically about her inevitable death with him. She had been surprised, back then, at how the words felt stuck in her throat.
“I don’t want you to see me die,” she had said, forcing the awful words out. She had looked at him, her client, and she had known it was right to make him promise. She knew, no one should have to watch his own therapist die. “You have to promise me that you’ll leave before…”
“The end, right,” he had muttered. “Fine. You have my word on that.”
They had agreed. Before 11am on her third day, they had agreed.
She fell asleep again. She thought she did, at least, when she next opened her eyes. Maybe it had grown darker. She wasn’t sure. Crowley was still there, still holding her hand. He looked up at her when he noticed her stir.
“It’s--” she coughed. Well, she tried to cough. “Go. You have to go.”
He shook his head.
“Crowley,” she admonished, as much as she could.
“I promised I’d leave before the end,” he said, looking at her. There was a determination to him. She knew that look in his eyes, those open and honest eyes. “But this isn’t an end, Herb. It’s not an end, it’s just a change, so I’m not going anywhere.”
He shook his head. There was a determination to him. He shook his head, and he patted one of his hands against hers.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. You’re not going to be alone for this, so I am not going to leave.”
Tears fell down her cheek.
It hurt. It hurt, knowing that he was serious, that he would do this, do this for her. She knew he had seen so many other mortals die before, but not her, not his therapist. She knew he was strong and resilient, that he had the skills and fortitude to survive something like this. She knew that she felt guilty, thinking he would have to be strong and resilient for her sake. She knew that it was wrong, for any client to comfort his therapist through her death.
She knew it was wrong, and also she was so very grateful for it.
There was no one else that Aubrey Thyme would have invited to her deathbed. There had been so few people, ever, that she would have invited to this place, to this sanitized yet ceremonial space. Especially since she had lived such an unnaturally long life, there was no one else who would sit in that little plastic chair beside her.
She loved Crowley. He was, as always, so gentle and generous.
“You’re going to be alright,” he said, he kept saying. “You will. It won’t be easy, but you’re a survivor, Herb. You’ll be alright.”
He comforted her. He spoke, and he gave her comfort. He turned to telling her stories. They were good stories, happy stories. Many of them were stories she had heard before, and it was comforting to be reminded of them. He stayed with her, he refused to leave, and he told her stories to comfort her.
When they had first met, he had looked older than her. And he was, most certainly, so very much older than her. They had long since switched places, however, in terms of appearance. He now looked so very much younger than her. She wondered, if she had ever had children, what generation of descendants would be the age he looked to be? Even her grandchildren, by this point, would have been much older than he looked. But which generation, exactly, would look the same age, that was a question. It was a simple question, really. It was barely even a puzzle, hardly more than arithmetic. All it would take, to figure it out, would just be some arithmetic, some very simple arithmetic…
Aubrey Thyme died with her eyes open.
She looked at Crowley, now from a different angle. She was standing, now, on the opposite side of the hospital bed. (She wasn’t really standing.) She looked down to see herself, in the bed. (it wasn’t really herself, not anymore.) She saw that Crowley was still holding her hand. (She didn’t have hands, not anymore.)
It was a little strange, being dead.
It didn’t take long for her to realize that someone else was in the room. She looked up at him. He didn’t frighten her, but she suspected that he was not trying to frighten her. Death, she suspected, was as much of a professional as everyone else in this room.
Crowley could not see her, it seemed. He did not look at her. He did, however, look over to Death. Oh, right, she thought, they’ve met before. She watched as Crowley opened his mouth. He was saying something, something to Death. Crowley was speaking, and Death was listening to him, but Aubrey Thyme could not hear the words.
She could not hear the words, she realized, because there was a buzzing in her ears. (She didn’t have ears.) It was growing louder, very quickly, this buzzing. It became more than just a buzzing. It grew louder and louder, and it flowed into her, flowed in from the ears she did not have. It poured into her, reverberated through her, filled her up and consumed her. It was a buzzing, but it wasn’t: it was a sound like the roar of the ocean’s waves crashing, like the crackling of unquenchable fire; it was a sound like the depths of a serene lake that could beckon you in; it was a sound like the heat of white-hot scorching Light.
It was words. It was a sound like words. Words, flowing into her, through her, reverberating through the whole of her. Words, consuming her, forcing their way deep inside of her, down into where her bones should be. Words, within her, making her, unmaking her, settling in the bone-deep spaces within her.
They were not a shout, not a bellow. These words, they were a whisper:
you do you, sweetie
And then they were gone. Those words, they flowed out of her more quickly than they had come. They gave up residence in the bone-deep places of her, they gave her up. Those words, they abandoned her, and they left her with just the memory of almost being burnt to a crisp from the inside out, just the memory of almost sinking, almost drowning for an eternity. They left her, just right at the last moment before the panic could truly set in.
They left her. She took deep, grounding breaths. (She didn’t have lungs.) She let her system calm. (She had no neurology, not anymore.) She waited, as Crowley and Death finished talking. She was satisfied to wait.
Death turned to her. He beckoned to her. She followed, and he showed her how to make her descent.
Hell wasn’t so bad, not really. It was for other people, sure, but not for Aubrey Thyme. She was, after all, the most blessed entity to ever walk through the Halls of Hell and stay for more than three days. And she had, after all, been thrice bound by contract to Hell’s most notorious traitor: once unwittingly, once wittingly, and once by forgery.
It was the forgery that seemed to disturb the denizens of Hell the most. It wasn’t that long until she started hearing demons murmur sigil-forger as she passed by, and she most certainly felt no compunction to correct their misunderstanding. She could tell, if there had been anywhere else for them to send her, they would have banished her away. But what were they going to do, tell her to go to Hell?
She really found that joke to be very funny, even if no one else seemed to. Their loss, she thought.
Things got even better, once the rumor started spreading that she could spit holy water. She didn’t know where that rumor came from, but it definitely made her life easier. After that rumor started, even that giant pisspile, Hastur, stopped trying to annoy her.
(She reminded herself, yet again, to try to be kinder in her thoughts towards Hastur. He couldn’t help it, if he was a giant pisspile, and he was, after all, working so very, very hard.)
There was more space available in Hell than it had first seemed. The place was just terrifyingly, tortuously mismanaged. She wasn’t too surprised by that. After all, trauma sits in the brain like an ever-present actuality, taking up too much space, crowding out the neurological capacity for other necessities like executive functioning. It was common for trauma survivors to find it challenging to manage tasks like organizing their files, keeping a firm schedule, making to-do lists and following through on them. It was common for trauma survivors to struggle with all those skills that were needed to set up and maintain a well-oiled bureaucracy. And what was Hell but a bureaucracy founded by the traumatized?
She didn’t ask permission. She just chose a storage room and went about cleaning it out. There was plenty of space available, it just all needed to be put in order. And, if there was one thing Aubrey Thyme could enjoy, it was getting to put things in order. If there was one thing she was good at, it was taking what others had mismanaged as a result of their past traumas and figuring out how to set it right.
She didn’t ask permission. She just cleaned out a mismanaged storage room and turned it into an office space. She scrounged around until she found two chairs that would be comfortable enough, some tables she could put beside each, and a desk where she could sit to do her work.
It would have been nice if her office had had a window, but she accepted the lack of it. This was Hell, after all--she couldn’t expect it to be too nice, could she?
Things got even more tolerable for Aubrey Thyme, once she got her penpals.
The first one she got while she was still cleaning out her office space. She found, moldering in a corner, an unsorted pile of field reports. Very clearly, they had never been read. Very clearly, no one had ever dealt with them beyond stuffing them in the corner and promptly forgetting about them. Trauma, after all, can disrupt one’s executive functioning.
Those field reports, they were a hoot. His voice came through so clearly in them. She suspected, even if anyone down here had taken the time to read them, they wouldn’t have been able to interpret the sarcasm that was so obvious to her. They wouldn’t have noticed the exaggerations, the very obvious lies, the sardonic humor. Each of these field reports, she could so easily tell, was a jab, a dare, a game of chicken: is anyone down there ever going to pay attention to what I’m doing up here?
No one ever had. She was grateful for it, for him. She was grateful to get to read through all of these fantastic field reports.
She took some of the best ones, and she used a red pen to circle each spelling error and grammatical mistake she could find. She wrote comments in the margins, joking and making fun of what he had written. Then, she bundled them up, and she bribed a demon to get them returned to sender.
Just a few days later, she got his reply: The ones before standardized spelling don’t count. Good to hear from you. Keep in touch. -C.
So that was that. She had her first penpal.
The second penpal came later, and it was a complete surprise. She had been walking through the halls one day when a demon she didn’t recognize came up beside her. He went, “Psst,” and then he pushed something into her hand. She took it, and he disappeared back into the crowds.
It was a note, and it was written on the most blindingly white paper she had seen in a very long time. It was folded crisply into a perfect little square, and it was tied up with strings. It was very obvious where this note had come from.
She didn’t know what annoyed her more: the number of exclamation points Dave used in his writing, or the fact that he had somehow figured out how to navigate the back-channels between Heaven and Hell before her.
He was having trouble getting a therapeutic drum circle off the ground, up where he was, and he was hoping she might have some advice. He had written in order to restart their professional relationship, so that they could consult with one another. She didn’t know if she could be too helpful, since drum circles were far outside of her professional experience, but she replied with the best advice she could offer. And that was that: she had her second penpal.
It was good to have a professional contact. It was good to have a colleague with whom she could consult and commiserate. It was good to know that Dave was doing fine, and that, despite the difference in location between them, their experiences really weren’t that different from one another.
Yes, Hell really wasn’t that bad. She had her office. She had two chairs, end tables beside them, and a desk. She had her penpals, one of which was now a friend and the other of which was a professional contact with whom she could consult and commiserate. And, of course, there were her clients, her very many clients.
Hell really wasn’t that bad, and it wouldn’t be that bad, not as long as she knew how many trauma survivors there were here in need of help, not as long as she knew that she had the training, the professionalism, and most significantly the experience to be able to provide them with the help that they needed. Hell wouldn’t be that bad, even for an eternity, given that there was work for her to do here, important work, the sort of work that left her with a feeling that she knew was a form of grace, the sort of work that she knew no other being in all of existence was as well-positioned to do.
She was Aubrey Thyme, a professional psychotherapist with countless years of experience working with cases of severe trauma. She had shared an apple with none other than the Serpent of Eden, and she had been able to look the Guardian of the Eastern Gate in the eye and express gratitude for the good he had done for her. She was a mortal who had rejected her Creator as an act of love, and she felt the bone-deep satisfaction of knowing that she was precisely and exactly where she deserved to be. She was a God-damned professional psychotherapist, and this was what she chose to be. And this was exactly what she would choose to be, again and again, over and over, for all of eternity.
She was Aubrey Thyme, and she had work to do.