Nick died in autumn, so when the parade of ghosts came to fetch him, they draped him with scarlet and umber and sent him to walk with his seasonal companions, in line after the summer ghosts in their emerald and gold and before the winter ghosts in their snow-white and jet-black. Spring and Summer both called greetings to him as he passed, their many voices blending together into one: hail autumn! king of this moment in time!
The other autumn ghosts were a mixed lot. Some were joyful, singing the praises of their season and calling out to all the living world as they passed, as if their voices could be heard as anything other than the rustle of the wind. Others were quiet, sunk so deeply into their own thoughts that they seemed unaware of the parade’s steady march through the endless cycle of time. Nick chose to walk closer to the second group because he had no songs for the season that had ended his life–and he’d never been a great singer. He did not simply let his thoughts wander, though. He walked and he listened and he watched as the familiar scenery of his life slipped away and was gone.
Perhaps they only went for hours–maybe they went for days or longer–when a ripple went through the parade of ghosts. Summer picked up its pace and Winter dropped back, until Autumn seemed to be marching alone.
Someone touched Nick’s shoulder–a small polite tap that did not appear to come from anyone around him. Nick looked around, but the other quiet ghosts were distracted still and didn’t notice.
“Hullo,” said a voice. It sounded a little relieved and very much like an older woman. “Hullo, I’m Rita. Who are you?”
Nick looked around again. The cheerful ghosts, skipping ahead of him, were still singing their songs and even the ones closest to him did not show any signs of having heard the voice. He shrugged a little. “Hullo, Rita,” he said, because after all, he too was a ghost and in no position to judge. “I’m Nick.”
“Nick! Short for Nicholas?”
“But very nearly Nicodemus. My mum sometimes had peculiar ideas.”
“Oh,” said Rita. She sounded disappointed. “I think Nicodemus would have been quite a splendid name.”
“Bit heavy for a kid, though,” said Nick. “Even if you did shorten it up a little, that’s a hell of a name. It’s the twenty-first century now. Fancier names are only fashionable if they’re misspellings; otherwise you’re setting your kid up for quite a burden.”
“Oh. Oh, dear,” said Rita. “I suppose that is one way to think of things. Though between you and I, I would suggest being a bit more open-minded in the next year.”
“I’m dead,” said Nick, “so what does my opinion matter?”
“See, like that. If you’re to do us proud at all, as the Master of Autumn, you’ll have to try a little harder to be more open to things. Just a little.”
Nick stopped walking. “The master of what? What are you going on about?”
“It’s quite odd at first, I’ll give you that, but you do grow accustomed to it very fast,” Rita said. “When I first got started, oh, I made all sorts of mistakes. I thought I would be behind on everything forever! But I managed and I daresay I’ve even gotten a bit ahead. You can take it easy for the beginning.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Nick. He smacked his face a little, scrunching his eyes closed for a moment–but when he opened them, he was still walking and the ghosts of autumn were still gathered all around him. “Am I going crazy? Is that it? I’m hallucinating now–I only thought I died, and now I’m only dreaming the most peculiar vision of the afterlife. All I need to do is wake up and everything will be fine.”
“It’s not quite that simple, Nick,” said Rita. Regret lay heavy in her tone. “You did die, and the parade welcomed you. And you were the last one who died this season, so the title of ‘Master’ falls to you. Being dead is its own sort of cycle too. Don’t be afraid, Nick. Like I told you, it seems like quite a lot at first, but it gets ever so much easier with time.”
“That’s not it,” Nick said. He was suddenly aware of the new silence around him–even the joyful ghosts had stopped their songs, considering the march in perfect silence. “I don’t get it, I’m just dreaming, I’m imagining things, I’m not, I don’t–”
“Nick,” Rita said. He could see her now, a small round woman with apple cheeks and gray hair. She wore a brown dress and a crown of red and yellow leaves. She walked beside him, matching his pace exactly. “Nick, please listen to me now. This transfer will happen whether or not you actually want it. Things will be far easier for all of us if you accept this. Summer is lazy and Winter is selfish. It is our duty, as one of the transitioning seasons, to keep them in check. You will have to fight to thwart them, and you will have to be clever. Do you understand?”
“I’m dreaming,” Nick said. “I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, and this is all nothing more than a terrible dream–”
Rita took Nick’s hand. Her palm was cool to the touch. “No, Nicholas. Everything else was the dream. And now it’s time for you to wake up.”
He swallowed. The sound was loud in his ears. “No,” he said.
“It won’t be forever,” Rita said. She smiled then, warm and friendly; he was reminded for a clear moment of his grandmother as she had been in his childhood, strong and solid and unwavering in the face of all terrible things. She squeezed his hand and let go and Nick realized with a sudden start that the world was starting to fade in a blur of warm colors, like the elements of a painting blending together. “Just until the next Master dies. You’ll know when that is. All right?”
“Rita,” said Nick, just as her face faded from sight. “Rita! Rita, I don’t understand, what’s going on?!”
It was too late; he was alone. He looked around the new place he found himself in–separated from the other autumn ghosts, standing alone in a forest that seemed caught at the cusp of the fall season: the branches overhead were half-empty, and under his feet was a thick carpet of leaves in a dozen shades of red and yellow. The air was warm but carried a crisp colder note that made his nose tickle. In front of him was a chair that appeared to have been fashioned out of raw branches of oak and maple. It appeared to be waiting.
Nick hesitated, then stepped forward. He put his hand on the arm of the chair, which was warm to the touch. He turned and sank into the chair; the twigs of the branches dug into his back and legs like little pinching fingers. Everything was silent and still, as if the entire world had taken a deep breath and was still holding it. In the sky overhead he could see flickerings of strange things–stars gathered in constellations he’d never seen before, clouds shaped into writhing strange beasts he didn’t recognize, and an entire history’s worth of names inscribed in dark red. His name was at the bottom. He closed his eyes hard for a few minutes and then opened them again. His name was still there, and he was still alone in a world that was silent and still. If he strained, and only then, he could hear the songs of the joyful ghosts of autumn, so far away that he couldn’t make out the words any longer.
It gets easier with time, Rita had said, but she’d smiled as she said it, as if she’d known more than she was saying–or if she’d been enjoying some kind of odd joke at his expense.
“I don’t understand,” he said. His fingers flexed on the arms of the chair.
I don’t understand at all.