Death walked down the crowded streets of London with an old pocket watch in one hand and an even older notebook in the other. She was running late—again, and she was beginning to feel like that white rabbit in Mr. Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although, she’d read the story over and over again and had decided that the rabbit’s waistcoat was too clean and eyes too pink to match her shadowy gaze. Death’s eyes had been bright once. Not full of life, because that would be absurd, but they had once shone with a certain childlike wonder that came with a blissful ignorance. And then the humans came along and her love for them shattered her completely.
Now, Death was running particularly late that day because someone hadn’t died on schedule. A Mr. James R. Prichett had evaded her twice now, and his time was finally up. Prichett lived on the top floor of an older building, his apartment small but clearly well loved. He had been a professor at some university only a decade before, so his small quarters were filled to the brim with books and papers of all sorts. Death loved bookish people. When she took their memories, their lives flashed before their eyes, and she loved to see each story play out. Her favorites were the most nonsensical, as there was nothing nonsensical about death.
Death reached Prichett’s door and knocked three times as she always did, and then she let herself in. The old man—who was closing on 90—was resting. Death smiled, this would be easy. She sat down on the sofa beside him and touched her icy fingers to his forehead. All was peaceful for a moment, and then the old man shot up out of his slumber, crying out in pain. He nearly fell off the couch, but Death steadied him. He was not meant to die in pain.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he exclaimed as soon as he noticed Death’s willowy figure.
“All three? I must be quite a sight for tired eyes.” She was trying to sound casual, joking even, but instead she came across as cocky. He probably thought she was horrible.
“Who are you, what are you doing in my home?”
“Ah—yes. I am here to take you away, if you would be so kind as to follow me.” She made a slight gesture for him to follow her out the door, but the old man didn’t budge.
“Mr. Prichett, you must come with me because your time has run out and now you have to…” Her voice trailed off. She could never really say the word.
“Have to what?” the old man demanded.
“Cease. Disappear. Pass. Eat the dandelions from the root.”
“You’re here to kill me?”
He was afraid now, she could see. It seemed that Death could never, never stop them from being afraid.
“No, not kill you. Of course not. You’re simply going to die by natural causes. It’s quite peaceful, truly.”
“You’re going to murder me.” It was an accusation now.
“No, I am merely your death. Well, yours and everyone else’s. I am the most logical thing in the world.”
The old man was shaking as he stood up and then sat back down again.
“But I don’t understand. You’re lying. You’re one of those dumb kids who gets a kick out of messing with an old man. Shame on you.”
“Mr. Prichett, I know it’s hard to understand—”
“How do you know my name?”
Death let out an exasperated sigh. She was weary, and the stubborn Mr. Prichett wasn’t helping.
“I’ve already told you. I am Death, and your time is up, so we really must be going.”
“My time is not—”
“It’s been up for a while, Mr. Prichett. Consider your more than frequent visits to the hospital and the strange elixirs you’ve been drinking because someone on the internet decided they’d instantly make you healthy.”
“How did you know about that?”
“I told you, I am Death. I know everything about you.”
The poor man was horrified, like she was some disgusting Lovecraftian monster come to dissect him and perhaps turn him into something even uglier than her.
“I don’t understand, you are just a girl.”
Death looked at him with annoyance. “Life begins with woman, Mr. Prichett, it’s only fitting that it should end with one.”
Mr. Prichett shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. It’s only that you’re so young.”
Death smiled at him, a real, genuine smile where her eyes shone and lines of fatigue merged with lines of laughter. And Mr. Prichett might have then seen just how old her eyes were.
They were ancient and forever, and they were tired, which was odd because eyes weren’t supposed to change. Not really.
“Believe me, I’m not young.”
“And what about gods of death? Hades and Anubis, Hel and Arawn of the Otherworld? I have books on all of them, yet none are real?”
He must have assumed she was the only Death, and that she was perhaps a goddess.
“They were all real for a time. And then people stopped believing in them. They dissolved into nothingness and withered at my hand as human faith dwindled into an empty void. I am all that’s left, the empty death.”
“But where will I go?”
What was she going to do to him was what he really meant. Would she have mercy? Always.
“Somewhere nice I’m sure. Most of us end up somewhere nice.”
“Us?” he asked Death, his gaze flashing over her old, old eyes.
“You.” Them. Never us, never we.
“Were you once human?”
Death froze. It was such an odd question and yet so foolishly simple.
“No. I have always been as I am. Death triumphant.”
And yet she longed to be human. She longed for that blissful touch of mortality, and to age and to love and to grow. To hold another and give life to the world around her, not take it away. For no matter what she did, no matter how comforting and peaceful she tried to be, people always feared and despised Death. They’d curse her for taking their loved ones away, or they’d shun her with the invincibility of their youth. And despite all of the people she’d touched with her cold hands, Death was truly, deeply alone.
She was about to open her mouth again to tell Mr. Prichett that they really must be going, when the phone rang. It was so loud that it was almost sickening, but the old man leaped from where he sat and was soon hugging the device close to his ear. And then he began to cry.
“My first grandchild was born. We’ve been waiting for days, and my daughter went into labor this morning. I should be there,” he said after hanging up the phone.
So that’s why he’d been so desperate to stay with the living, a new life was waiting for him.
“We really must be—”
“Please let me see her. Just once.” He was begging, and it hurt Death so much that she bowed her head and said she would allow this one gift, but they would depart soon after.
Death took the old man to the hospital quickly, and he hobbled off down the hallway with what the passing nurses and doctors must have seen as a young girl on his heels. They came to a room where Mr. Prichett’s daughter was resting and stepped inside.
His daughter was smiling, although she looked exhausted, and a baby girl was in her arms. Death had only been near stillborn infants and those who had passed away in the night when they weren’t under the careful watch of their parents, so to witness the miracle of life…it was almost devastating. She watched as the family rejoiced and sang their praises to the child, and she watched the tears in Mr. Prichett’s eyes fall down his weathered cheeks.
Death saw Mr. Prichett glance over at her, and for a moment she thought he might see her sadness and her loneliness. For a split second he might have felt sorry for her, and then he gestured for her to come closer. She did, ever so hesitantly, and before she knew what was happening, the little girl was placed in her arms. The child was heavier than she had expected, but it fit against her chest so perfectly that she almost cried out. This was what she wanted so badly. The feel of a child against her and the warmth of another. It was something so new, so lovely. The child squirmed in her arms, her eyes closed and mouth gaping, and she was the most beautiful thing Death had ever seen.
It only took a few moments for the baby to start crying out in fear and pain. Death’s cold fingers had caressed her soft skin, and the child was terrified. Death returned the child to her mother in an instant and then quickly left the room. She wanted to weep and she wanted to scream. But most of all she just wanted to disappear. For her own wretched existence to cease. For the world to come crashing down around her. She heard the old man come out of the room and stand beside her. There was an almost comfortable silence as Death composed herself. It seemed Mr. Prichett knew that she was upset, but of course he could never understand how someone like her could be. In his mind, Death shouldn’t be able to feel anything.
And yet, she felt more than anyone.
She was the grief and the pain and the tears at a funeral. She was the scream that echoed across tiled walls when loved ones were found alone in bathtubs. She was the final breath that escaped chapped lips when the time had come. And she was in all the skeletons that littered the earth.
“I think I’m ready now,” Mr. Prichett said, his hands beginning to shake. Death turned to him, her face devoid of any emotion. Only the expression of an indifferent stoic to mask all of the pain and grief building up inside her.
“Good, I am running terribly late, you know.”
Lives In: Bethesda
High School: Graduated in May from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
Previously Published In: Chips (B-CC’s literary arts magazine), Teen Ink’s website and the University of Virginia’s Young Writers Workshop literary magazine
Favorite Place to Write: The butterfly garden at Sweet Briar College in Virginia (UVA’s Young Writers Workshop is held at Sweet Briar.)
Favorite Author: Jane Austen
Up Next: She will attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “I hope to study English with a concentration in creative writing.”