The delivery man looked at the calendar on his wall and saw that the day was right, and he looked out his window and saw that the Sun had gone down a little over an hour ago, so the time was right, too. He put his bag of blessings over his shoulder and walked out into the gloom to do his job. Oh, not the one they paid him for, but his real job, the calling for which he was called the delivery man. Nobody said good-bye to him because he lived alone because of his sin.
He had to walk a pretty long while before he got to the first house, and when he did he saw that there was a skinny dog tied up in the yard and it barked angrily at him. But the delivery man didn't need to go into the yard and annoy the dog any further to do his job. He just stopped at one corner of the fence, the corner of the delivery, and he took a purple string from his bag and wrapped it three times around the fence post before tying it carefully in a four-looped knot. He knew that in the morning the children would come out to play and they'd find the string and know he had visited, so he tied it pretty loose so they wouldn't have any trouble removing it after the magic had passed. They might play with it for a while or dump it straight in the green garbage cans he saw lining the carport, but that would be okay; it only needed to be in place this one night to get the benefit.
The delivery man glanced at the dog again. It was glaring at him balefully, barking every few seconds to remind him that it was still there and still hated him. He fished around in his bag, and pulled out a biscuit. He tossed it to the dog, who jumped up and caught it neatly in midair before settling down to chew, no longer barking. It wasn't really the right kind of blessing for a dog or even the right kind of biscuit, but any blessing or any biscuit is better than none and the delivery man figured even a dog's gratitude would be worth something. Their sin in that household was gluttony.
That first house was at the edge of the forest, and the delivery man's route led him along the road where it became narrow and winding, in among the trees. He supposed that some planner down at City Hall must have thought it would be pleasant, to have some kind of scenic drive through wooded parkland or something. Make you feel like you were far from civilization even though you were actually just out in the suburbs. The delivery man knew what came next and kind of wished he could avoid it, but there wasn't any way to avoid it and maybe that was just as well anyway.
He stopped at the exact legal boundary of the parkland, took a step toward the trees, then another. Now he was standing on the edge of the sidewalk where it ended. He stepped again, and down maybe a centimetre or so onto the dirt. Just as he knew it would, his death slid up out of the pavement on his left just out of reach.
"Hello again, friend."
At first the delivery man didn't answer. He knew better than to think if he just ignored it it would go away, that doesn't work on bullies or mockers or especially not deaths, but he couldn't resist trying anyway. He didn't look at the insubstantial figure as it drifted along beside him bearing his own face atop a body of withered, charred bones. Not like it wasn't there all the time anyway, but this special night made his death visible, and especially hard to ignore. It tried to put him at ease with conversation.
"Oh, you're looking well this year. I think I'm a bit further off. Gonna be that much longer before I catch ya. You been sticking to the diet and all?" Without waiting for an answer, "Good, good. Hey, I think you've got fewer stops this time, too. Not so many blessings in that bag. I hope that means not so many folk needing delivery?"
The delivery man had been thinking about that question himself too, of course. His death had just put words around his fear.
"Maybe, maybe not," he said. "I hope it isn't just they don't know what they need anymore."
"Well, that's your job, isn't it? Telling them. Even before they ask."
"I can't go in where I'm not wanted. You should know that better than anyone, it's the same for you."
"Oh, you'd be surprised what people will admit to wanting, sometimes." The delivery man's death chuckled, a hollow, spooky sound not that every sound it said wasn't. "Sure it's a rule that I can't enter a household uninvited, or take away a person unwilling, but if you could only understand what counts as an invitation anymore, well. I guess when your time comes you'll understand about wanting me to take you. Maybe if you're real lucky you'll even understand very soon. Don't worry, though, your time isn't coming for a long time yet. You've got a whole lot more to deliver first, even if you do only go where you're wanted."
They were now deep in the forest, and the delivery man saw a flash of orange among the trees off to one side. Near the railroad tracks, he guessed, though maybe he thought of that a minute or two later because just when he saw it he wasn't thinking, his feet were already turning off the unpaved shoulder of the road, carrying him towards the light. This shouldn't have been on his route but he knew that whatever steps he took would be the route just because those were the steps he did take. On this night he couldn't do anything other than his job, so it would be okay in the end.
The flash of orange turned out to be a little fire. There was a clearing in a nasty swampy bit of ground just down one side of the tracks, and some chunks of concrete that seemed to be arranged into a sort of low table, probably by bored homeless persons. There were three kids there, dirty but not poor, maybe seventeen years old or so, and they were huddled around the fire talking and passing around a joint.
When the delivery man's face became visible in the firelight his death sank into the shadows because fire drives it away except when the time for it to appear really comes at last, and the delivery man was left alone to face the kids. As soon as one saw him she muttered something and the others fell silent, one palming the joint, and they all turned and looked at him.
The delivery man stared back. Looking around the clearing he saw right through the kids, saw their respective deaths hiding in the shadows like his own, held at bay by the fire, and he saw their sins. Sloth which would be called lack of ambition. Vainglory, now that would be called posing. Drunkenness or something very like. They stared woodenly back at him. Not openly hostile, but he clearly wasn't expected or invited.
Well, it was true about the not going where he wasn't invited, he'd been telling the truth about that to his death at least, but the delivery man had been looking at those kinds of faces since before these kids were born. Granted he hadn't really been a delivery man back then but only a silly kid playing at being one, even younger than them, maybe twelve or so when they were born. He fished a slightly damp cigarette from his breast pocket, a tobacco cigarette, twisted his face into something like the grins he remembered making when he was seventeen, and said, "Got a light?"
They went for it. One of the kids gestured at the fire, and that was all the invitation the delivery man needed. He bent over with the cigarette to bring its tip in contact with one of the coals, and released the blessings he'd palmed and prepared, automatically, upon entering the clearing. The blessings were three tiny glass seed beads, one clearblue for drunkenness, one green for sloth, and one goldenrod for vainglory. The beads vanished into the ashes like grains of sand and nobody was any the wiser. If they were teenagers it wasn't necessary to let them know they'd been blessed for it to work. That was one of the special things the delivery man knew about teenagers.
The delivery man took a long drag on the cigarette, watching his death out the corner of his eye as it hovered in the shadows with the others, waiting for him. He imagined that he could see it move closer a micron at a time with each swirl of the smoke but of course that was just silly. He held the cigarette up like an ironic toast, may as well let them think he was a homeless bum and not quite right in the head, returned it to his mouth, and said "Thanks, guys. Have a nice night." before leaving the clearing. The teenagers said nothing in response, but the one whose sin was vainglory had an unaccountable urge to thank the delivery man. He didn't know why, and still didn't say anything. Just one of those strange things.
"That was neatly done," said his death as soon as they were out of earshot. P>
"Of course, their sins weren't very big. Not a lot of time to make mistakes when you're that age."
"No, but plenty of mistakes to be made." The delivery man knew about making mistakes, and maybe his death didn't know quite so much as it thought it did. The delivery man had had plenty of time to make his own mistakes, whereas his death had only gotten to watch, and sometimes the delivery man's mistakes in his life hadn't even looked like mistakes because he'd made the best of them afterward or pretended he'd wanted to do that all along. It was even enough to fool his death, usually.
He walked along the road, and it curved again and crossed the park boundary. The delivery man saw the edge of the sidewalk coming up and he stepped thankfully onto it because there was always the chance despite past experience that his death would depart as easily as it had shown itself, but as usual the start of the sidewalk wasn't any kind of magical boundary like the end, and his death was still there, grinning at his side, just out of reach. He sighed, and looked out at the suburbs below him and the city beyond that.
"Lot of people down there. Lot of sins." That could have been either of them.
"Yeah. Lot of work to do." It was the delivery man who said that one.
He walked along the sidewalk, looking carefully to either side for the telltale signs of sin. Not that he'd have been able to say in words even to his death exactly what he was looking for, but he knew that when he saw a place he needed to go, then he'd know that he needed to go there. If you could have seen his death flying along beside him you'd have noticed that once or twice it would anticipate his moves, because his death also knew the route even though the delivery man made up his route as he went along.
One house with not just one but two sport-utility vehicles in the drive was labouring under the sin of avarice, and when the delivery man saw it he had the feeling he ought to knock at the door instead of making his usual silent visit. A thin, serious young man answered the door, or at least the delivery man thought of him as young even though he was really just a year or two younger than the delivery man himself. They looked at each other for an awkward moment, each seeing more than they wanted to admit to, and then the delivery man held out that house's blessing. It was a squishy rubber ball with the shape of the Earth's continents marked out on it in green paint.
The young man took the blessing, asked if he needed to sign for it, and on receiving a negative answer said "Thank you again," even though he hadn't said thank you the first time anyway. He said he would pass it on to the people who needed it and shut the door in the delivery man's face.
"Who was that, do you suppose?"
"Don't know. He seemed to know the score, though."
"I'll say. Maybe someone else like you?"
"That's fucking ridiculous. There's nobody else like me."
"Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean, too. You bet that guy's sin wasn't avarice. He doesn't live there. So why was he in the house?"
"I guess he was invited."
"Sure must be nice to be invited," and it occurred to the delivery man that of course, his death hadn't ever been invited anywhere because the only person with the power to do that would be the delivery man himself, and that only when he was ready to give himself completely to the death. He didn't share that thought because obviously his death already knew about it. It had probably been brooding on the subject all his, and its, life.
The bag may have been emptier than usual but there were still a lot of blessings in it and the subdivision was simmering with sin. It took the delivery man hours to zigzag his way across it going from house to house, trying to avoid being seen by the occasional cars that would pass because he had had bad experiences with the police in other years. Most of the sins were venial and boring and the delivery man made quick work of tying a string on here, dropping a bead there, or sometimes just scratching a symbol of delivery onto a house foundation with a piece of chalk. His death made the occasional comment but mostly kept its peace.
There was a place where a little river had been broken and tamed, and it ran through the subdivision in a gradually-sloping concrete flume. At the edge it went through a tunnel to pass under the boundary road, and the delivery man saw a flickering white light coming from inside the tunnel. From where he stood he couldn't see what was causing it, and his feet didn't want to move him closer. It wasn't on the route.
The delivery man stood staring as the flickering white became brighter and took the form of the weeper. He'd heard about her before but had never seen her, and as her wailing cry echoed from the nearby buildings, at a frequency only the delivery man and his death could hear, he felt a glimmer of smugness that at least in his case there was no cause for fear. One who sees, hears, or even thinks too much about the weeper is put on notice that his death is at hand, but with his death floating on his left just out of reach and chatting like the old friend it was, the delivery man had nothing to be warned about.
But the sobs grew louder in his ears and the weeper's form became sharper and clearer, sharper and clearer than anything seen just with the eyes but more like a drug vision. In awful distinctness the delivery man saw the four swirling pools of emptiness lined down the front of her body and the matching vortices where the weepers eyes ought to be with tears flowing out and everything else flowing in. She needed a blessing and her sin was the sin of needing, itself, but the delivery man knew without checking that there was nothing in his bag of blessings for the weeper.
"That's okay," she cried in her ultrasonic voice, "I'll take you instead," and those eyes grew or the delivery man shrank and as he was sucked into them he thought that this wasn't on the route and it wasn't according to the plan and worst, worst of all, THE WEEPER WAS NOT INVITED HERE so the rules must have been broken and without rules he might as well stop existing after all, but somewhere in the back of his heart the part that was linked to the delivery man's death cried out and there, there was his death, swirling up in black and red robes between the delivery man and the spirit of the sin of need. It grew, scaling uniformly in all direction until it towered over the subdivision, dwarfing both the weeper and the delivery man. Swirling wisps of ectoplasm filled the air, and the weeper was caught up in the fluid and though she presumably continued to exist, she stopped being visible to the delivery man. His death continued to grow until it filled the entire Universe, then grew past that from an infinitesimal point to its normal size and position, to the delivery man's left just out of reach.
"Uh, thanks," he muttered, shaken; it was an unfamiliar thing to say.
"If I can't have you, nobody will," said his death grimly. "But be careful with 'thanks,' because 'thanks' is just a small step away from 'please,' and you must never expect any slack from the likes of me."
Past the tunnel they were in the more serious part of the city, where there were other people out doing the things that people do at night in the city never mind that it was so late, and the delivery man couldn't talk with his death too much because of the danger of being overheard. A man who walks down a city street talking to thin air will not excite much comment, but if the thin air answers, well now, that's a bit of a problem. It wasn't like there were many blessings to deliver here either; most of the apartment buildings were on the routes of other delivery men, and this one only had remaining a few specialized blessings that had been missed or revised for whatever reason.
The delivery man stopped in front of a door. It was between two bank branches of two different banks that uneasily shared a building, and it was the door to the apartments on the upper floors of the building; behind it steps led past the mailboxes and up to some dingy corridor, and the door was locked but the delivery man knew it would open for him. He stopped and he thought, as he had done at this place every year for oh, far too many. He'd been dreading this moment but it had always been as inevitable as the appearance of his death.
"You're invited here, too," said his death quietly.
"No, I'm not. Not really."
"I've told you before that almost anything counts."
"Not when there's only one option. That's no choice at all. No valid invitation when there's no possibility of refusal."
The delivery man's death slid behind him and attempted to push him towards the door, and it clawed at the lock before realizing that the door would swing open for the delivery man anyway if he just took one more step closer, but the sin of the woman whose apartment was at the top of that door, well, the closest word you'd know for it would be lust though that wouldn't be completely accurate, and the delivery man's own sin was the one they call pride, and that word was completely accurate, and the delivery man's sin was stronger than him and his death and the door by far. He could no more enter at that door than he could flap his arms and fly to the Moon. After a while the death gave up and slid back into position, bones rattling.
"You know I'm trying to help."
"Yeah, and you know it's not because I don't want to."
"You know that it's your job to deliver."
"Yeah, and you know how fucking big a job that is and I can't do it alone." P>
"You just can't choose this yourself, right?"
"You're the only one who's allowed the luxury of not having a choice, right?"
"Fuck you," the delivery man muttered, and on seeing that a homeless person was standing nearby just ready to ask him for spare change, he added, "Yeah, and fuck you, too, man!"
But he took a dollar coin out of his pocket and handed it to the homeless person, who said, rather doubtfully, "Fuck - uh - thank you, sir," and hurried away. There wasn't a blessing as such attached to the coin but money is a blessing itself so that should work itself out.
The delivery man walked on down the street looking for places to leave his blessings, and he found them and emptied his bag bit by bit. Empty busses trundled by and then a long white limousine with a lady in it who wore a blue dress and far too much makeup, but the delivery man knew that that wasn't makeup. He bowed to the limousine, thinking that maybe when all was said and done, her job was more important than his. Anyway his job was over for the year, because he was a creature of the late evening and the lady in blue showed up at the start of the early morning. Time to go home.
The delivery man's death had started to lose substance as soon as he noticed the blue lady and his mind formed the realization that the night was ending. It was almost gone by the time he reached the forest, as were the three teenagers who had probably gone back to warm beds in their parents' houses and already forgotten their meeting with the delivery man. Not that that mattered, of course; what mattered was that it had happened, even once, even immediately forgotten and never understood.
The delivery man's feet were cold and tired as he walked in the door. He took down the calendar and flipped it to the next month, gazed for a moment at the picture of the woman on the next page before hanging it back, and then went off to brush his teeth and shave off the stubble. In the mirror, he caught the last glimpse of his death before it faded for the year. The delivery man's death had a blank, sullen expression identical to his own, because it had his face.