The Twilight Zone was pretty far out on the edge of town, but it was far enough in that, as we approached it, we noticed that it was a little brighter. On the very edge of town, there's no light at all except for the lampposts. All the light in Aphter came from the same place: The Lightstone. It was right in the middle of town, and it was so bright that you couldn't look directly at it without some sort of protection. Even the lampposts were lit with tiny chips of the Lightstone. Nothing else in Aphter gave off any light at all, not even fire. Why? Well, scientists (dead scientists, of course) had been looking into the matter for centuries, since the dawn of science. They had discovered very little of use, however, except that they could, with great effort, chip off little pieces of the Lightstone and use them for lamps. The nicks left by these little chips would fill back in up a few days, keeping the Lightstone a perfect sphere.
Here at the edge of The Twilight Zone, however, you couldn't see the Lightstone at all, though you could tell what direction it was in by a lightening of the horizon, like a sunset.
"Is the sun about to come up?" Amy asked, looking off at the horizon.
"No. Definitely not," I said.
We'd been walking for something like an hour when we came suddenly to the last house in the burbs and the road fell away down a hill to lower ground. The burbs were up on a plateau of sorts, but it was too dark here to see how far it stretched off to the right or left. Down below the road passed into a shadowy cluster of low buildings that looked like shops and townhouses and apartments. The dim shadows were lit here and there with twinkles of lamplight, and the twinkles stretched out for as far as you could see ahead of us but got dimmer as they went, so you couldn't tell exactly how far this section of town ran. There were people, lots of people, out on the streets and sidewalks below. You could see their shapes moving around and you could hear the murmur of them from up here. The Twilight Zone was always buzzing with activity.
Amy and I walked quickly down the hill and approached the busy streets. A few people glanced at us as we approached, but no one seemed overly suspicious. The dead can tell the living if they look closely enough. There's a calmness, a stillness to the dead that the living lack. The living have little fidgets of the skin and eyes, little ticks and jerks. They move around too much, constantly adjusting to their own skin. It's pretty noticeable once you've been dead for a while. Out here, in the dim light, moving quickly through the street, probably no one would be able to tell the difference.
It didn't take long before I was in familiar territory. I'd been here dozens of times. Normally I'd have stopped in to see friends, but I really needed to keep moving. So, I avoided all the obvious places. I avoided the meat market where Mark would have spotted me for sure. I avoided Mr. Stipps' stoop, where he always sat and smoked his pipe. He didn't miss anything or anyone that came within a block. Instead, I ducked into the alley behind Mr. Stipps' place and took it for a few blocks behind McGrudy's and the Boot Shop and came out in the middle of Ashbury Lane. The coffee shop was across the street and two blocks down.
"Who are we going to see?" Amy asked. "Is it much farther?"
"We're going to see my dad," I answered, taking her hand as we crossed the busy street. "It's only two more blocks."
"Your dad is here?"
"Yes. He lives here. Well, not 'lives', technically."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
I glanced down at her. "Oh, don't be," I said. "He's never been happier. When he was alive he was always sick."
She didn't know how to respond to that. People were accustomed to thinking of death as a bad thing. Me? I just thought of it as a different thing. Still, not everyone knows what I know. Not everyone pays close attention to details.
We arrived at the coffee shop - open and crowded as always - and I slipped around the side and into the alley to the back door. It was open, as always. I hoped we could make it across the kitchen and to the private stairs to the apartment without being noticed, but we didn't. I was just stepping onto the first step when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
"Well, well, well. Here already, are you? Ah, well. You had a good run. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised you lasted this long, clumsy as you are."
"I'm am not clumsy and I am not dead," I said, turning to look the man in the eye.
"Oh, well. I see. I see. You've been too busy to come and see us, I guess," he said, nodding at Amy and winking.
"She's not mine. She's a friend," I said. "She's in a bit of trouble. I'm trying to help her."
"Well, well," he said, stepping up to us. He was a big man, at least four inches taller than me and twice as wide. "If he's your help, you're in trouble for sure." He smiled and stooped to look at Amy, offering his big hand for her to shake. She glanced at me and, when I nodded, she shook his hand quickly. He stared directly at her face closely for another second, and then stood abruptly and, clearing his throat, offered me his hand. "Hello, Simon," he said.