Margot thought about her grandmother as the boat rocked from side to side over the river. She thought about the lie she had told her when she left.
“I’m just going to visit Leah.”
She hoped she would make it back home before the sun rose.
“Thanks.” She told the oarmaster as she climbed out. He nodded as silent as he had been during the ride. He pushed off the shore and disappeared over the water.
Blue grass crunched beneath Margot’s feet. She glanced to her left, then to her right. The witch had told her she would need to find Death’s castle, but there was nothing but hills on this side of the river.
White skeletal trees burst up from the hills. The tops of their leafless crowns almost blended in with the sunless sky above. Small black crows sat in their branches, creating dots in the background.
One of the birds chirped. Once. Twice. Almost like it was trying to say hello. Margot found it in a nearby tree.
“Hello, Mr. Crow. Can you show me where Death’s castle is?” What would her grandmother think of her talking to birds?
“He doesn’t have a castle.”
Margot tripped backward.
“You can talk?”
The bird jumped off its branch. As it neared the ground, its coal-black wings stretched and contorted into slender arms. Its feet grew into long legs. A boy, no older than sixteen, took its place.
“You crossed the River Styx, and you’re surprised a bird can talk?”
The boy moved his long black hair away from his face. His delicate features reminded Margot of Leah’s younger brother. The boy’s black cloak did nothing to hide how young he looked, but the scythe strapped caused Margot to take a step back.
“Are you Death?”
The boy shook his head, “I’m Nico. I’m a reaper. I get to help Lord Death out sometimes.”
Margot crossed her arms over her chest. She knew a little about reapers. How they stole the souls of the living to add to Death’s collection.
“I’m looking for him.”
Nico shrugged, “I can take you to town. It’s just through the hills.” The reaper gestured to the east of where they stood. “Lord Death usually stops there so we can report to him at the end of the day.”
Margot shuddered. She didn’t want to go anywhere with this reaper. The witch’s words echoed through her mind. But, as much as she didn’t want to, she didn’t have time to get lost. In her mind, the town was desolate, crawling with reapers. She turned her thoughts to Leah and thought about the witch’s promise. If she could battle death and win, she could bring Leah back.
“How long will it take to get there?”
“If I was flying, not long.” Nico considered for a moment, “It’ll take longer with you. No offense. But definitely less time than it would take to walk you to Lord Death’s house.”
She nodded. “Okay, but you walk ahead of me.”
Nico gave her a knowing look. She had no doubts that even if he walked ahead of her, he could kill her, and she wouldn’t know until it was too late.
He did as she said. Nico walked softly. The pink and purple flowers beneath his feet barely seemed disturbed as he walked over them. His cloak reflected light onto the grass, lighting their way.
“So.” Nico trailed off.
“Margot.” Nico nodded, “You want to bargain with death.”
It wasn’t a question. Margot wondered how many humans Nico had met trying to do the same.
“He took my,” she paused, unsure, “my best friend before her time.”
“Lord Death doesn’t make mistakes.” Nico said it softly.
“Leah wasn’t supposed to die. She was only twenty-two.”
“Twenty-two year old named Leah.” Nico said absently. He thought for a moment, “Not one of mine.”
“You remember every soul you take?”
“We remember the souls we reap.” Margot didn’t miss the gentle correction. “A gift from Lord Death, so we can find them while they’re here.”
Margot wanted to know what the reapers did with the souls after they collected them, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
She stumbled before she could ask. Strong arms caught her before she could hit the ground.
“Are you alright?” Nico’s gray eyes matched the sunless sky above.
“I’m fine.” Margot lied and dusted herself off. Between her pants and her shoes, she could see straight through the skin of her legs. She was disappearing from the living world. The sun was coming up.
“The town is past this next hill.” Nico slowed his pace to match Margot’s. “You should be able to hear it now.”
Margot listened carefully. A breeze blew gently across her face. She could hear music coming from the direction of the town.
“Why does Death make you go into town for your reports?”
“Lord Death is kind, he doesn’t make us do anything.” Nico said it casually, without the attitude Margot had expected, “We can see him privately if we want. It’s just easier to check in on the souls this way.” Nico paused, “If we’re lucky a few of them might know your Leah. They might even know where she is.”
Blood rushed to Margot’s ears. The chance to see Leah again, to apologize to her, wasn’t that what she had wanted? What she had been begging for? She caught a glimpse of her fading hand.
“Let’s hope we’re lucky.”
For a town in the underworld, it was lively.
Stone buildings shone even without the sun. Their polished stones gleamed under the colorful flowers that lined the walls. People were singing as they walked through the town. Their bright outfits caught Margot’s attention. The only people who stood out were the reapers. Their all-black cloaks and scythes made them easy for Margot to spot.
Margot knew she should feel afraid. But the reapers were smiling, laughing even, with some of the souls.
“Everyone seems so happy.”
“They are.” Nico waved at someone who called to him. “Lord Death takes their well-being seriously.”
A small boy ran up to Nico, his chubby legs almost giving way as he tugged on the reaper’s pant leg. His blond curls bounced as Nico picked him up. Margot couldn’t understand the language they were speaking in, but the boy’s wide eyes and big hand gestures told her everything she needed to know.
Nico put the boy back down. He reached into his cloak and pulled out a small teddy bear. The boy reached for it excitedly. With a wave to Margot, he ran off, the teddy bear clutched tightly in one hand.
“One of your souls?”
Nico nodded. “I brought him here a few living days ago. He’s still new to the whole ‘being dead’ thing.”
“How long have you been doing the ‘whole being dead thing?’”
“I don’t remember.” Nico’s voice was casual, but Margot could sense he didn’t want to talk about it, “I think I was about fifteen when I got here.’”
They passed a large building with glass walls. At one end, people sat in chairs, reading books or magazines. At the other end was a line of phone booths, all of them filled.
“Have you ever tried talking to Leah from the otherside?” Nico asked.
Margot shook her head, “I don’t know what to say.” What could she say? She thought of the phone call that woke her that night. Of reading the notifications in the hospital room, the missed calls, and texts from Leah asking if they could talk. Margot didn’t deserve to speak to Leah anymore.
“Say anything.” Nico’s voice broke through Margot’s thoughts. “Everyone loves getting messages. They all get delivered here.”
Nico pointed out more buildings as they walked through the town. The bakery where an older couple stopped to talk to Nico. The woman gave Nico a loaf of bread and pinched his cheek.
Margot smiled despite herself.
“Over there is one of the community gardens.” Nico pointed out as he rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “Everyone gets their own patch of land. If flowers are left for someone, they get added here.”
The entrance to the garden was a grand white arch surrounded by tall bushes. The arch was covered in flowers in all different colors and sizes.
Under the arch, Margot could see a young woman. Her dark hair was pulled artfully into a braid that transcended down her back. The woman tugged her hair in front of her, a motion Margot could recognize anywhere.
Wide brown eyes met Margot’s. Margot wasn’t sure who started running first, but she crashed into Leah’s arms.
Leah’s body was soft against hers and warm. Margot took a deep breath, inhaling the familiar scent of jasmine, and for the first time in six weeks, felt like she could breathe again.
You’re not supposed to be here yet!” Leah’s hands reached up and grabbed Margot’s face. She held the other woman gently.
Margot leaned into Leah’s left hand, finding comfort in the cool press of metal from her ring finger.
“I came for you.” Tears stung Margot’s eyes. She couldn’t stop them from falling.
Leah made a soft sound and placed the taller woman’s head against her shoulder.
Margot cried against her lover’s shoulder. She hadn’t cried like this in weeks. She didn’t know if she could stop crying now that she had started.
“It’s not your fault, Go.” Leah said. Her hands rubbed soft circles over Margot’s back.
“I wasn’t there.” Margot could barely speak between sobs.
“You weren’t supposed to be.” Leah lifted Margot’s face.
Leah wiped her tears away. “It’s not your fault. It was my time. Lord Death helped me see that.”
Margot grew angry at the mention of his name. “No. It wasn’t. There was so much more for you to do. That’s why I’m here. I met this witch, and she told me I could fight death. If I win, I get to bring you back.
“Go,” Leah chuckled lightly, as though Margot was a small child or a puppy pretending to be a wolf. Still, the sound spread warmth through Margot’s body.
“I’ve missed your laugh.”
Leah smiled, but it vanished just as soon as it had come. She took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled.
“I missed you and I love you.”
“But?” Ice was creeping over Margot’s bones.
“I can’t go back with you.”
“What about us?” Margot hated how selfish she sounded, “What about your family?”
“I’ll always love you.” The words were accompanied by a squeeze of Margot’s face, “but you and my family deserve the chance to move on.”
“I don’t want to.”
“It took a little bit, but I’ve accepted my death. You have to accept it.”
“I don’t know what to do without you.”
“You live.” Leah said, “Talk to someone like you said you would. It helps. I talked to the reapers down here.”
“They seem okay.” Margot mumbled, “One of them brought me to you.”
“Thank you.” Leah took a step back to speak to Nico, “For guiding her here.”
“It’s my duty.” Nico smiled, “Besides I-”
Nico’s eyes widened at something in the distance. He froze.
The music that had filled the town stopped. The silence was a held breath.
Margot turned to see what Nico was staring at.
Death had arrived.
Margot could see Death towering over the townspeople even from where she stood. His black cloak absorbed all the light that hit it. His hood covered his head, leaving an impenetrable shadow where his face should have been.
He took a step, and the city roared with noise. People were shouting, running to him as they clamored for his attention. He could hardly take a step without a new person blocking his path.
“He’s coming this way!” Nico’s voice had gone up an octave. Finally, death reached them, and Margot swore Nico was almost bouncing with excitement.
“Hello, Leah, Nico.” Death’s voice was a deep timber.
“Hi, Lord Death.” Leah blushed prettily, Margot wanted to be upset, but she found herself lulled into a sense of serenity by Death’s voice.
“Your Grace!” Nico’s eyes were still wide open. This time Margot was sure he was doing a slight bounce.
Death turned to her. Up close, the shadow was even darker. A void underneath the hood. In his scythe, Margot could make out her own features.
“Margot. I believe you’ve been looking for me.”
Death seemed content with her answer. “Something has changed. Will the three of you talk with me? Somewhere more private.”
“Of course, Lord Death.” Nico answered immediately.
Margot gave him a look. She wasn’t prepared to face Death yet. A flash of movement caught her eye.
Leah held her hand out. A familiar expression on her face.
Margot grabbed her hand as she had done hundreds of times before. Their rings clinked together as they stood before Death.
Death grabbed his scythe and swung it in a large arc. His movements were fast and graceful; Margot reminded herself he was a predator.
A large wooden door appeared where Death had swung his scythe. It was taller than Death himself. He pushed it open with a gloved hand.
Nico ran through first. Leah pulled Margot through.
The door opened into a large dining room. An oak table with eight chairs sat in the center of the room. Beyond it, three bay windows overlooked the town. Three dog bowls rested on the floor next to another entryway. Margot was sure she had seen this same room in one of the home renovation magazines her grandmother was so fond of.
Leah tugged Margot’s hand before she could look at the decor. They were standing in front of a painting that took up a portion of the wall where the door had appeared.
Death stood behind a figure, his ominous presence made small by the woman in front of him. The woman barely reached Death’s shoulders. Her golden toffee skin emitted a soft glow, directly contrasting to the dark cloak. Her brown curls were adorned with pink flowers. Margot looked into her painted eyes and felt as though she was floating.
“My wife.” Death’s voice was filled with adoration.
Leah squeezed Margot’s hand.
Death’s scythe clanged against the table where he rested it.
“I’m afraid the sun has risen in the land of the living.”
Margot barely heard Leah’s intake of breath.
“That’s impossible.” Margot’s voice sounded distant, even to her own ears. But as she looked at the hand clasped in Leah’s, she knew it was true. There was no longer a difference between the two of them. Margot’s solid physical body was no more. She was just a spirit.
Death was silent.
“If I may,” Nico’s voice was quiet, “Margot came here to bargain with you for Leah’s life. What if she bargained for her own?”
“The witch told me I would have to fight you.” Margot said, “but after being here, I don’t think I can.”
“Fight.” Death’s voice held a hint of amusement. “The original word in that oath translates to ‘challenge.’ Once in their lifetime a soul may challenge death for a reasonable wish.’ Some prefer physical, but I’m a fan of mental challenges myself.”
“Like a riddle?” Margot asked excitedly. She was happy to not fight Death. Instead, she wanted to learn more about him, to understand the strange world he operated in.
Death hummed, “It may take you a while to ask a question I don’t know the answer to.”
Death sat at the head of the table and gestured for Margot to sit as well.
“The two of you should find Cerberus. I’m sure he’d love to go on a walk.” Death directed at Leah and Nico.
Nico walked out with a nod towards Margot.
“You got this!”
Leah locked eyes with Margot. Years of unspoken communication flowed between them. Leah walked out.
Margot faced Death.
“I will give you three chances to ask me a question I don’t know the answer to.”
“Why do you take the best people when we need them the most?” Margot was ready.
“It’s their time.” Death shrugged. “The good people in your life are there to teach you lessons. Once they’re gone, it’s your turn to step up and be that good person for someone else.”
“Why does it hurt so much, when they’re gone? Why can’t you just make us forget about them?”
The hood jostled slightly, “Because they meant something to you. You humans create meaning for yourself. Mourning can only be for the living.”
“You seem to have all the answers.”
“I know a lot about death.”
“I guess you would.” Margot looked at death. She took in the dark shadow where his face was. “Who are you, underneath the hood.”
Death pinched both sides of the hood with his fingers. “I’m a lot of things to a lot of people.”
The hood fell back.
At first, Margot thought she was looking in a mirror. Her own features stared back at her. The closer she looked, the more she realized Death’s features were a bit older. Lines had started to form at the corners of her eyes. Soft smile lines had begun to take shape around her mouth.
“If that’s what I look like.”
Death’s face rippled, and the features changed.
Margot was looking at a younger version of herself. One she only really recognized from pictures.
“Not intentionally.” Death frowned.
Another ripple. This time Death was much older. Magot’s hair was streaked with gray. The lines that had only been appearing earlier sunk into her face permanently.
“You’re change.” Finally, Margot started to understand, “You’re not the end of life, you’re the change in how we understand it.”
Margot smiled back.