By Brynn MacNab
The bartender gestured toward Death’s empty glass. “Another one?”
“No. Just about time for me to be going.” Most people never even noticed Death, at least not until he came for them. Maybe there was a special dispensation for bartenders. This one had mentioned his name on several occasions, but Death couldn’t be bothered with details like that.
“Is it the guy?” the unnamed bartender asked.
The guy. Jonas Holbrook. His fat face flashed across Death’s memory, as crisply detailed as if it was happening again, right now, the shock and fumbled apology, the grabbing of his clothes, the fleeing past a man paralyzed in the moment of betrayal, a man unable to do what he should have done to his rival right then and there.
“Probably not.” Death stood. “But it will be sometime.” The full flask stowed in one inside pocket of his leather jacket swung against his emaciated ribs.
Outside, the sun was white and glaring. Death ducked his head and hunched bony shoulders. The filth and noise of the city eddied around him, never quite touching him, sliding away from the cold hole in the world that he was. That power—the cold, the distance—came from the scythe, folded up in his jacket. The fire in his belly, half liquor and half hatred, propelled him. The tugging pressure of a soul awaiting its release told him which way to go.
Someday the pressure would lead him true, and he’d stand over the man who had ruined his life, the face seared into his mind with a clarity that every other memory had long since lost. Jonas Holbrook. A blue-eyed man, soft-featured, gentle. Not a man he would have ever thought to fear.
Of all the Deaths who could be called, he knew it would be him. It had to be. He’d waited all these years.
Today he walked through wide hospital doors, down a shiny-floored hallway and into a room with a machine that beeped, an antiseptic smell, and a nurse just turning to leave.
He stepped aside as she passed, her features already blurring into sameness. She didn’t see him, and he didn’t bother to see much of her.
The old woman in the bed looked at him.
He opened his mouth to say, no.
Yes, said something in the back of his mind.
“Matthew, what are you doing here?”
He pulled the collapsible scythe from inside his jacket and extended the handle. “Ma’am,” he said, “your time has come.”
Early on, he had started out by softening the news, but any ‘I believe’ or ‘it seems’ had only begun arguments. He was their Death, not their counselor.
He could see her soul, translucent, beginning to lift up out of her body. He took a good grip on the scythe.
“Matthew.” Her soul faded back, nearly re-submerging under her flowered hospital gown. “What are you doing here? And you look so thin.”
“I’m Death,” he said, gesturing with the scythe.
“Oh.” Her face, growing more familiar by the second, creased in disappointment. He hadn’t thought about the people he had known. Not for a long time. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were my brother Matthew.”
That’s how I know her. She had been much younger, of course, when he had left them. But it was her. Her name danced just out of his reach.
He shifted, feeling awkward. “No, I guess I am Matthew. Death is more of a title.”
Her wrinkles shifted again. Tears welled in her eyes. “Oh, dear,” she said, reaching for the nurse’s call button. “I think they’ve given me too much of something.”
“No, really. After the crash I was lying there, bleeding, ambulance wailing too far away. But the Death who came to collect me said they had an opening. Somebody had just quit, left them short-handed. I wasn’t ready to leave the world.”
“We thought you were trying to die. The way you drank after Leah left you…”
Leah. A name—and a person—he’d successfully forgotten. He grimaced.
His sister peered at him. “You look terrible, Matthew. Don’t they give you anything to eat?”
He wished he could remember her name.
“To think you’ve been watching over us all these years.” She smiled, laying her head back against the pillow. “The priest thought you might have gone to hell. He said the way you died looked very bad for you. But I knew you were our guardian angel.”
He felt himself flush with embarrassment for the first time in decades. “Well…not exactly. I’ve been waiting for Jonas.”
“Jonas?” She frowned. “I don’t remember any of our family named Jonas. Was he a good friend of yours?”
But she wasn’t listening. Her eyes began to mist again, in that annoying way old people sometimes had. “Do you remember the summer we spent at Aunt Julie’s farm? I’ll never forget jumping into that lake after a long hot day. Or the smell of the hay in the morning.”
“I’ve forgotten both of those,” Death said quietly.
“Well, that’s all right. What about the reception at your wedding, when Grandma danced with the minister? Remember how she laughed?”
She shot him a glance. “All right, you do one.” When he was silent, she prompted, “Go on. We only have a few moments left before I have to die, as well you know. And I’m hooked up to wires and I hurt all the time, and you’re dead. We may as well enjoy reminiscing. It’s all we’ve got left, isn’t it? What about the Christmas you and Leah spent at our house? I think you saw my Nadine’s first steps.”
“I don’t remember that, either. I forgot that you had a child. I don’t even remember your name.”
She pursed her lips.
“It’s not my fault. I’m Death now.”
“Don’t say, ‘Huh.’ It’s true.”
She fumbled around and found the remote for the bed, then slowly raised the head to put herself in a sitting position. “All I can say is, I hope this Jonas has been worth it.”
“Jonas Holbrook,” he said. “You remember. The man Leah left me for.” Maybe Matthew should have shot him, instead of drinking himself to his death on a roadside and then waiting around so long. Is he worth it?
“Oh, him. Isn’t he dead yet? I thought I outlived everybody. But I did lose touch with Leah.”
Has he been worth it?
“My name, by the way, is Margaret. And you should have remembered that, and you should remember it in the future.”
He put his hand against the flask in his pocket. He needed another drink, or several. He’d forget her name by nightfall. He’d forget this had ever happened. He’d remember that he had to wait for Jonas.
“All right, I’m going,” she said fretfully. “You should go with me, you know. I bet the rest of the family is waiting.”
With that she closed her eyes, folded her hands over her stomach, and resolutely waited.
He stared at her. Stubborn Margaret, he remembered someone saying. His mother, had it been?
Sure enough, after a moment her soul began to float up out of her. He remembered himself, his job. She floated above her body, watching him from transparent and much younger features. Tethered at the toes. He lifted his scythe, and cut her free.
Another coldness came into the room, like the chill he borrowed from his scythe but deeper, and stretching farther away. He could feel it, behind her soul, drawing her. For an instant she hesitated, looking toward him. She lifted a hand as if she’d reach for him. Then she smiled, and turned.
I hope he’s been worth it.
He hasn’t, Death answered. He leaned his scythe against the hospital room wall, and stepped up into the air, into the cold place as it closed.