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Raven Shift
Knight Terra Press colophon

Knight Terra Press

littera manet sed lector oraculum

est. 1995

by Quinn Tyler Jackson

  • First published in Distant Worlds, June 2002.

It was three days going before Todd Schmidt realized he was dead. Were it not for his loss of appetite, and for the smell of his own rotting flesh nearly causing him to pass out when he sniffed under his arms, he may not have even noticed. It was a good thing, then, that he worked outdoors, alone and starting at eleven o’clock nights, without anyone around the gas pump islands to notice. Besides, death was easy enough to work around, once he set his mind to learning a few useful habits, like brushing only the enamel of his teeth, rather than his gums, so that he wouldn’t end up rinsing pieces of his former self down the sink. He had to lose a tooth to figure out the necessity of this new habit, but once he had his pattern down, it began to come easy.

Two days after the smell his own rot became unbearable to him, he called to mind something he had once read about the poisoning of Napoleon, and so, took to drinking arsenic-laced cod liver oil shakes, and it wasn’t long on this regimen before he managed to keep the rotting in check. The concoction tasted awful, but no more awful the cod liver oil alone tasted. You do something enough, he remembered the words of his father, uttered ritualistically every morning as he held out the spoon of oil before each of the children, and you get used to it—down it goes! And so he did get used to it.

The best part about not having to worry about keeping the promethean spark of life going in his body, it turned out, was that Todd no longer craved sleep, and therefore found plenty of time when he was not working pumping gas at nights to enjoy many of the pleasures he had, until his death, denied himself in life. Fine dining didn’t matter to him anymore—the arsenic had all but deadened his sense of taste—and besides, fancy food was beyond his modest means.

After washing his clothes in three times the normal amount of detergent every morning, he would dress and walk five blocks to the local library, where he would sign out two or three books at a time, and go out to the adjacent park, sit on a bench, and read the many works of literature he had never before allowed himself the leisure to read. Although it was a bit of a nuisance to brush away the crows, he felt far more at ease outside, in a cool breeze, than inside the library, where others might notice he was smelling a bit off.

No longer tempted to read while suffering through the graveyard shift at work, he put his full effort into his job at the all night gas station. Once he got his wind, he found himself doing things around the place that were not even his responsibility, such as counting the stock in the attached convenience store, which was closed at nights. After a few weeks of this increased effort, his employers started to take notice of the new enthusiasm this Mr. Schmidt had for his job, and gave him a small raise in pay.

As happy as he was reading, renting movies he may never have had the time to see had still been alive, and putting his mightiest effort into his position at the station, Todd started to expand his horizons, and decided to finish off the bachelor’s degree he had to abandon for the job at the gas station when funding from student loans and odd jobs dried up. All of his new reading and research simply would not let his mind rest, however, and he set his mind to completing what he had once started.

He used his time at the library to locate a reasonably priced school that would allow him to complete his bachelor’s by the mail, and pushed through the months until he had completed his degree. Once his employers discovered that their gas station attendant, who had single-handedly, by effort alone, reduced their cost of paying for a regular day stock counter, had earned his degree, they started to take genuine notice of Todd Schmidt, and offered him a promotion to assistant manager of the store. The thought of having to work days horrified Todd, however, but he did manage to convince his employers to open the adjoining store portion of the station during nights as well, and since he was already doing so well at serving gas and taking care of the store anyway, they agreed to let him handle the task without any additional help.

Todd found that running the store gave him many more interesting things to think about, and he started to take his position seriously. He borrowed books from the library on management, merchandising, and the like, and during his days became somewhat versed in the many technicalities not just of running a store, but running a business. It was not long before the store was pulling in almost as much during the evenings as it did during the day, and Todd was again given a raise in pay.

One evening, a nervous looking customer proved Todd’s suspicions founded when he pulled out a gun and told him to empty the cash register. Having grown quite accustomed to being dead, and having lost all of his no longer relevant healthy fear of dying, Todd stood at the register with a wide smile.

“I’m sorry,” he said through his Lysol-flavored teeth (since he had taken to gargling with Lysol months before, to keep the smell down to manageable), “but I just can’t do that.”

The robber shot him a few times in the chest, but Todd did not feel any pain. He vaulted cheerily over the counter, attempted to grapple the gun from the robber, and in the fight, accidentally killed the man. It was a simple matter to change his shirt and jacket, phone the police, and when asked what had happened, point to the two bullet holes in the wall behind the cash box. Since it was clearly self-defense, Todd was questioned no further.

His bravery above and beyond the call of duty earned Todd another promotion (to manager and safety coordinator) and a short spot on the local television station’s real crime program. Once word got out that Todd Schmidt didn’t back off from armed robbers, even the day shift never was robbed again.

With his new interest in business firm in his mind, Todd continued in his correspondence studies and worked towards his MBA. He had so much time to spare in a day that he finished his studies in the minimal time allowed. Again his employers were impressed, but could find no further way to promote or encourage their most ambitious employee, and so, instead offered him shares in the store. Todd had, after all, managed the store well enough that sales had increased, employee morale had climbed, and after his incident with the robber, theft was down to petty shoplifting by school aged children who were too naïve to know of Todd Schmidt’s no-nonsense stand on crime at his store.

It made perfect sense, then, that Todd Schmidt decided to take the ultimate leap and work towards a doctorate in business management. His new salary allowed for it well enough, he had the time to spare, and he had the native inclination. The months, and then years, passed, and finally the day came when Todd Schmidt could call himself Dr. Schmidt. Over that time, the store had expanded its selection, and had merged with a nearby café. It had a book section, with many of the books hand selected by Todd himself—for he had read most of everything worth reading by then.

One evening, as he was considering plans for the addition of a car wash and garage, Todd noticed a lady about the age he had been before he died. She was seated in the café, reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. At first, he tried to pay her no obvious notice, and buried his nose in the plans he was going over. It was not long before he peered over the papers and realized that she was just too beautiful to avoid staring at. He found something to do in the back room, however, and let the hired help (a man who, through an unfortunate accident, had no sense of smell, and thus earned himself the honor of being the only person Todd Schmidt ever allowed to be around him for more than a few moments) deal with the customer.

The next day, Todd Schmidt took out the same book from the library and reread it through. When his time came to work again, the lady returned, and resumed her reading. Todd approached her and said, “Trying to learn how to blow up a bridge?”

The customer laughed, wide-eyed, and put her book aside. “Just find that I can’t sleep much lately,” she said, “and needed something to read. I hope you don’t mind my using your little book store here as a library.”

“Oh, not at all,” Todd replied. “Feel free!”

“My name is Martha. It’s so peaceful here,” she said. “And best of all, there are no crows.”

"Raven Shift"

Books by this author:

Born and raised in Western Canada, Jackson grew up as a child in logging camps, where radio plays and reading were his only forms of entertainment. Upon his return to the city, he felt the call to write fiction, and approached art with a passion and fury. Rather than jump directly into authorhood, he first edited, and then promoted others’ writing as a literary agent. Eventually, he moved forward into his own art, and his first three novels were published in the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2002.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2006. He is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada.

Jackson lives in Western Canada, where he continues to write fiction and work in scientific research.

With Lily the Aussie - 2013
Quinn Tyler Jackson
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