Life in Death

by Adina Edelman

I smell death. The stench isn’t unbearable; more like the lingering odor of a tuna sandwich left out too long. But it brings up a heavy feeling inside me, a sickening anticipation for what is to come.

I stroll down the locker-lined hallway, my boots making no sound against the hard floor, my long coat flapping noiselessly around my legs. I head for the school cafeteria. Pale mist weeps from its double doors, and a steady crackling of static fills the air; more signs of souls ready to be taken. The hallway is still. Most of the students wait, breathless, behind their locked classroom doors. Most of them.

I reach the cafeteria. Lying at the threshold is a slumped figure wearing a tired, olive-green jacket. It’s not the latest style, but neither is the bullet-shaped hole in the shooter’s forehead. His handgun lies a foot away. I stare down for a moment, disgust roiling inside me. I was not created for this kind of end. All the same, I kneel beside him. Cupping my cold hands around his mouth, I suck in a long, rattling breath.

My vision flickers as thousands of images sweep through my mind, taking control and turning me into him. Warmth engulfs me as my family draws close over a game of Monopoly. Then shame as I’m shoved repeatedly against a locker – pride as I receive a high school diploma – pain as hands tear it from me and rip it to shreds. Fear of disappointing my parents, frustration at losing the job, confusion over a bottle of spirits. Sorrow turns to rage turns to grief until – agony.

I stumble back, clutching a flickering, golf ball-shaped light to my chest. At my feet, the shooter is as empty as a rotted-out tree. It’s the worst part, having to bear their memories. To take on their lives as my own.

I enter the cafeteria. Pain is already there, sitting with an arm slung over his bent knee. Beside him, a fourteen-year-old boy clutches his side and gasps for air.

“You’re late,” Pain drawls.

My head snaps toward him. “Do you presume to tell me when death is due?”

A beat, and then Pain lowers his head.

There are five others in the room, spread among the tables and benches. The unlucky ones who couldn’t run or hide. I stoop beside the first, a tall senior wearing a white sports jersey that’s no longer white. A few minutes later, I straighten from the side of a sixteen-year-old girl who dreamed of becoming a scientist. Too late, young one.

My arms full of glimmering lights, I make my way over to the last victim. The young boy is semi-conscious, his fingers grasping at his side. Beside him, Pain fills in digits on a Sudoku chart. I regard him with mild contempt. “The least you could do is share in his discomfort.”

Pain glances at me before jotting another number down. “Does the jailer sit behind bars with his prisoner?”

I kneel beside the boy, who turns his head toward me as if sensing my presence. The panic and fear in his eyes are unmistakable. I place my hand around his mouth, lean in … then pause.

“The foolishness of humans,” I whisper.

Pain closes his sudoku book. “How strange,” he says. “Death taking pity on the dying.”

I sit back and eye him steadily. “Who else but me? You certainly have no mercy on them.”

“Pain has no mercy,” he replies coolly. “You shirk your duty, Death.”

I purse my lips. “Perhaps. But I cannot condone this senseless killing.”

From the hallway comes the sudden sounds of pounding feet and echoing shouts.

“Police are here,” Pain says. His cold eyes fix on me. “It is not your right to choose, Death.”

I meet his gaze as dozens of officers and medics burst into the room, shouting orders and brandishing guns. They don’t notice us. I stand and look down at the boy once more.

“No,” I say softly. “It is not my right. But I choose it all the same.” Then I vanish from the bloodstained cafeteria.

I reappear in the closest hospital, Delaware’s Christiana Hospital. Taking care of the flickering lights nestled in my arms, I stride down a large, brightly-lit hallway in the maternity ward. I find Life a few rooms down, standing in a doorway and writing something on a clipboard. She wears her usual floral nurse scrubs with her brown hair tied in a loose bun. She looks up as I approach.

“One soul short,” Life notes, eyeing the lights in my arms. I grimace. Of course she knows what I’ve done. Life eyes me for a moment with narrowed green eyes. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”

I dump the souls unceremoniously into her arms. “No.”

Life opens her mouth, probably to issue a biting remark, when a sudden wail sounds from the room behind us. Whirling, Life rushes into the room. I follow, passing through the medical staff as if they’re smoke. I see Joy flitting between the inhabitants in the room. She flashes me a bright smile, which I ignore. I can’t stomach Joy even on my best days.

The aftermath of the birth is so different from what I’ve just come from, the very atmosphere bright and alive. And I can’t ignore how the blood of life looks so different from death’s. I lean against the wall with my arms crossed, watching as Life leaps forward and gently places one of the glowing souls against the newborn’s lips. It slips inside, and for a moment the baby’s crying eases. Then the banshee wailing resumes.

I stare at the newborn, wondering. Does it have to see the soul’s memories like I do? Does it have to feel all the gladness, all that pain? Perhaps it does, but only for a moment. I live with the memories forever.

Life looks up and meets my eyes. Her face softens, and she jerks her head at the door. We walk into the hallway. Immediately, I sense the crackling of static a few floors down. Another soul, coming right up. I sigh. Life doesn’t say anything, just looks at me with those piercing eyes. I stuff chilly hands into my pockets, then, after a moment, speak.

“I’m tired, Life. Every day, I live through a thousand lives. And every day I must die a thousand deaths. I’m tired of carrying these -” I gesture at the souls she carries – “So you can keep life going. I see Pain and Grief every day, swooping in on those left behind … and I can do nothing but continue to take.”

I take a deep breath, exhale, then repeat, “I’m tired.”

We stand in silence for a few moments, and then Life says, “There is an old man waiting for you on the second floor. You’d best not be late.” She turns and walks away.

“You can keep your lemons,” I mutter, scowling after her. Then, with another sigh, I decide to do as she says. Ignoring Life never ends well. I make my way to the second floor and follow the crackling of static.

When I reach the room, there’s a group of six or seven people inside, all standing at the foot of a hospital bed. Although gray mist swirls thickly around their legs, they laugh and speak cheerfully amongst each other. Lying on the bed is a thin man. His long fingers are intertwined on his lap, and his bushy white eyebrows hang over tired brown eyes. Those eyes lift to meet mine, and my heart stills.

He is looking at me. At me.

“I know you,” I whisper.

He smiles. “It’s been a long time, friend.” His voice is so soft that the others in the room take no notice. I open my mouth to question him, but then my own memory surfaces amidst the hundreds I’ve collected that day.

“1962,” I say. “The Red Maiden’s Motel. You’d just been beaten by a gang you wanted to join.”

“Yes. I was dying, and I felt you grab for my soul.”

“And you fought back,” I say quietly. “As only a few ever have.”

The man gives a weak shrug. “Perhaps I was too cowardly to die. Perhaps I was too stubborn to let go. I’m not sure. What I do know, Death, is that you’re the reason for all this.” He gestures at his laughing family. “You showed me the ticking clock. And I’ve been counting ever since.” He looks at me solemnly. “Thank you.”

I stare at him. From behind me a man’s voice says, “Your friend here, Dad?”

“Yes, Charlie,” the old man whispers. “It is time.”

Immediately, the family members gather around, voicing their love for the old man as they clutch his hands. The old man keeps his gaze fixed on me and nods once more.

A minute later, I quietly exit the room, leaving Grief to tend to the family. I gaze down at the ball of light cupped in my hands.

“No, friend,” I say softly. “Thank you.”

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student