The day was bright, and slivers of the rising sun peeked through the dirty glass window. The clouds parted, filling the room with gorgeous dawn. Shadows slowly crept back, easing over her meager breakfast. She stared at the food remorsefully, not hungry enough to eat. Ironically, the light stopped at the edge of the table, just before reaching Brie. If it hadn’t hurt so much, she might have laughed at the irony. She was truly a cursed woman, a woman of shadows. The cancer had spread quickly, ensnaring her in its deadly trap before she had time to prevent it. Twenty wasn’t a fair age to die, but life had never been fair to her.
She stood sharply, ignoring the piercing pain the action brought her. The doctors told her to stay in the hospital in her final days. She refused. Death would arrive on her doorstep either way, and she’d rather have the comfort of her home over the sticky white hospital sheets. She dropped the spoon with a clang, not bothering to clean up as she normally would. Today felt different. She felt better, somehow, the gnawing pain turning to an occasional bite. Shuffling to the crusted-yellow bathroom, she dressed slowly and carefully. Most days, she never bothered to leave the apartment. But today was different. Today, she thought, was better.
She felt the grooves in her cane with a tired sigh, fingernails finding new scratches in the ancient wood. With no driver’s license, she’d have to walk to town. Driver’s licenses needed maintenance, and she’d never had the energy or the wherewithal to schedule appointments. No matter. Today was different. Today, she felt better. She could manage half a mile to the cafe. She shuffled to the exit and opened it with some difficulty, chest heaving with rattling breaths. Once she was outside, she saw a poster on the door, a poster with scarlet letters in block shapes like barricades. “EVICTION NOTICE,” it said. No matter. She’d die before they managed to kick her out.
The walk to town was longer and more painful than she had expected. Several strangers offered assistance, outstretched hands concealed insults. She ignored them, hobbling past as quickly as she could, eyes focused on the settlement in the distance. By the time she arrived, the town square was busy, but she didn’t need clothes, food, or entertainment. Today, Brie needed rest as badly as air. She hobbled to the back of the square, where a small diner took up residence. The place she used to work. It seemed like eons ago. A young woman taking orders, talking to friends, complaining about bad pay. Oh, how she wished for those problems now. The problems of a child.
The door was heavy, but she was too embarrassed to ask for help. Instead, she struggled for what felt like an eternity, bracing herself against the heavyweight of age and metal. When she finally entered, she didn’t bother to be seated. Instead, she collapsed on the nearest chair, ignoring the protests of the employees. Being elderly, she thought, didn’t come with age. No, it came with this sinking weight. The stench of old life, the breadth of knowledge. She closed her eyes, bearing the pain and the heaviness with all her might. It wasn’t enough.
She awoke with a start, sitting straight up in her chair. Her heart raced. She’d had the strangest dream. A dream of-
“Hello, Dabria,” said a curly-haired young man, sitting directly opposite her. He was wearing a thick dark cloak that shimmered and pulsed, somehow bathing him in light and dark simultaneously. A large, pointed scythe was strung against his back, glimmering with the weight of a thousand souls. And, there were his eyes. He looked like a regular blond twenty-something man, but for the dark, stern, iron-grey eyes.
“I go by Brie,” she said softly, realizing what had happened.
“Brie, I can tell life hasn’t been fair to you,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. The cloak moved with him, pulsing with dark death. “Death, on the other hand, is much kinder,” he muttered, flicking his wrist in a sharp contorting motion. Suddenly, she felt weightless, the pain gone. Her muscles strengthened and her bones thickened before her eyes. Suddenly, she was young again. She moved, trying to test her new form. But, she found she was stuck. Stuck to… She gasped horribly. Below her soul was her lifeless body, mouth lolling open and blood trickling down her neck in a thin stream. She tried to move away, but found she was attached.
“Help me!” she cried, pleading with Death to set her free. He looked at her sadly.
“Unfortunately, my dear, I can’t just yet.
There’s something about you, something I’ve never seen before,” he heaved a weary sigh. “Better sit down. Hungry?” he asked, snapping his fingers. A full breakfast appeared, one she was now hungry enough to eat. Eyes widening, she grabbed the food, eating like a rabid animal. He threw a fork at her, mouth twitching in a smile.
“Starving, I see. I can’t blame you. Dying
does that to a person,” he chuckled, then began to cough. The coughs were awful, sickly hacks. The noise made even her stop eating. Death, sick? He must have seen the concern plastered on her face, because he waved her off.
“Not your business,” he said, covering his mouth. He observed her eating for a while, picking at the food. A meal with Death himself. Should be important, she thought mindlessly. She shoved more food down her throat, enjoying the feeling of hunger. Suddenly, Death stood, backing out of his chair with a screech. He looked fierce. Scared, even. Her eyes widened in empathy, hands dropping the croissant halfway to her mouth. He ran his hands through his hair frantically.
“There’s no way. It’s barely been a century,” he exclaimed, talking to a seemingly invisible force. “Unfit? You’re unfit!” he shouted, ignoring the frantic waitress who was now examining Brie’s body for a pulse. The world of the living seemed so far away now, like a world behind a smokescreen. Brie watched the scene with fascination and horror. Had she somehow insulted Death? His one-sided argument was brief, but he seemed to grow decades older in minutes. Finally, with the beginning of another coughing fit, he gave in. He slid into the chair, resting his head on the table. When he raised his head, he looked grave and slightly remorseful. It scared her, and she backed away as far as she could. Taking a deep breath, he spoke.
“My time as Death is coming to an end. I can barely continue my task,” he said. It was then she noticed the pain in his eyes, the terribly ashy color rising in his cheeks.
“The Scythe has chosen a replacement. It’s chosen-”
“Me,” she said quietly. Somehow, she had always known this to be her purpose. She had never fit in with life. Death seemed much more welcoming. She took a deep breath. “I accept,” she said, food forgotten. A siren wailed in the distance, the waitress now closing the shop and ushering out the other customers. He held out his hands gently, and she took them without a moment’s hesitation. Despite their pallor and bone-thin appearance, they weren’t ice cold like in tales. No, they were warm. Warm, gentle, and comforting. Suddenly, a thought came to her.
“What will happen to you?” she asked, yanking her hands back. “Will you die?”
“Death cannot die,” he said softly, eyes briefly widening in surprise. “I regret to say that I don’t know what will happen. But, whatever happens, it’s better than fading to a wisp.” She nodded, accepting that answer. They joined hands. He closed his eyes, and his face contorted, as if in pain.
At first, she felt a gentle trickle of something running through her fingertips. Then, it turned to a rush, pulsing through her body like a hundred heartbeats. It felt wonderful, like warm honey and gold. Then, the stream turned to ice, sharp scratches moving through her body. She cried out, but didn’t try to pull away. After maybe minutes, maybe hours, she finally felt him release her hands. She sighed, eyes closed against the weight of Death. But, unlike life, it was a burden she could carry. She opened her eyes, power pulsing all around her. The man was gone, his Cloak and Scythe resting on the cafe chair. She took them, fear and pain gone. There was only purpose, only serenity left. She watched as the paramedics took her body away, and watched as they proclaimed her death. No matter. She was Death now, and the past was past.
Although it was fulfilling work at first, the years made her weary. The Scythe and Cloak became her friends, close companions which shared her burden. Most deaths were easy, souls gathering in the Scythe for her to collect. Some, however, she had to visit. The Scythe guided those to her, the souls which refused to leave their bodies. Those were the worst. Countless mangled bodies, countless confused children. Countless greedy men’s souls sliced from their bodies, wailing curses filling her ears. It was dirty work, and she didn’t enjoy it. Yet, for the sake of the former Death and for the sake of the world, she managed it. She managed it for decades until it became too much. Just as the old Death’s hands had, her fingers became translucent. She grew ancient again, and couldn’t withstand the most menial deaths. It was then, when she felt she couldn’t take it any longer, that she met her replacement.
It was yet another day as Death. The Scythe alerted her to a restless soul, one she’d have to take care of herself. She awoke from her stasis, bones creaking and fingers twitching. She was tired and needed to sleep. Oh, if only she could rest for just a moment. Nevertheless, she journeyed to the place of death.
The first thing she noticed was the cold. The apartment was freezing, air conditioning blasting throughout the space. It was eerily quiet. As she dragged herself through the house, the stench of a deceased soul grew stronger. She moved through the area until she found the bedroom. By instinct, she knew it was the location of the newly deceased soul. She tucked her ghostly hands into her robe and entered, a neutral expression on her face.
The first thing she noticed was the blood. It soaked the carpet where the body lay, crimson draining from his wrists. A suicide. Sadness filled her. She remembered such horrible times in her own life, if vaguely. Her face hardened. It was time to relieve him of his pain. She moved to grab her Scythe, but something stopped her. A weighty feeling, a pull. Slowly, she sat, waiting for him to come to his senses.
“Hello, Kalaraja,” she said. The man woke, a terribly sad look on his face.
“I go by Kal,” he said softly, staring straight at her.
“Kal, I can tell life hasn’t been fair to you,” she said, sitting on the carpet. The cloak moved with her, pulsing with dark death. “You’ll find death much kinder, I think,” she said, waving a hand. She watched as his soul drifted away from his body, but stopped just as the last string was about to be cut. His eyes filled with wonder, his deep sadness and scars gone. The weight of his decision, however, Death could not remove. His final choice was a burden he’d always have to carry. Looking down, he saw the blood and his suffering. Even if it was his own doing, he still gasped at the horrid sight. He struggled to get away from his body.
“Help me!” he cried, pleading with Death to set him free. She looked at him sadly. She didn’t need the Scythe’s whispered messages to know it was time. Unlike her predecessor, there was no denial or accusations. She was so, so very tired.
“Unfortunately, I can’t help you yet. You, dear, are different from the rest. Hungry?” she asked, snapping her fingers. A mishmash of food, snacks, and drinks appeared. She’d never been as good as her precursor at that trick. Nevertheless, Kal dug in. She watched him for a while, confirming his fitness for the role of Death. She could feel it, almost. He would do well, she decided. It was time.
Death took her hands out of her robe and showed them to Kal. He gasped, dropping a sprinkle-covered donut. Her hands were see-through, skeletal. Almost like tissue paper.
“My time as Death is coming to an end. I can barely continue my task,” she said, ignoring the twinge of sadness that came with the familiar words. It was then he noticed the tiredness in her eyes, the fragility in her voice. She gave him a reassuring smile.
“The Scythe has chosen a replacement. It’s chosen-”
“Me,” he said quietly. Somehow, he had always known this to be his purpose. He had never fit in with life. Rejected it, even, for the embrace of Death. Although it wasn’t a decision to be approved of, it was his terrible choice. He took a deep breath. “I accept,” he said. A door opened with a slam. Kalaraja? Called a voice, coming from the kitchen. They ignored the noise. She held out her hands gently, and he took them without a moment’s hesitation. They weren’t ice cold like in tales, or stiff as they looked. No, they were warm. Warm, gentle, and comforting. Then, a thought came to him.
“What will happen to you?” he asked, loosening his grip. “Will you die?”
“Death cannot die,” she said, eyes softening. She repeated the words her predecessor had spoken all those years ago. “I regret to say that I do not know what will happen. Whatever it is, though, it’s better than fading to a wisp.” He nodded, accepting that answer. They joined hands. She closed her eyes, mimicking the actions she had seen her predecessor perform. Almost immediately, she felt a rushing sensation, as if the blood in her body was rushing into Kal. It was painful, and she clenched her teeth to prevent herself from making a face. He gasped, feeling the power flow into him. He cried out as the ice filled his veins. He sighed with the crackle of power. It was a weighty burden, but unlike life, it was one he could carry. He smiled grimly, understanding the previous Death’s sickness. But, by the time he could open his eyes to thank her, she was gone.