by Ferne Merrylees
Death arrived at 96th Street Station on a bristling cold spring
evening. He slipped through the gates, barely pausing before descending
down the steps to the Downtown platform. When Death passed, a young man
shivered and flicked up his collar with a softly whispered “fuck,”
jamming his gloved fists inside deep pockets; a homeless woman huddled
against a wooden seat groaned and rolled away; a little girl swinging
her father’s hand back and forth squealed delightedly as her cheeks
flushed pink from the cold. To those whose sand still plinked softly
and steadily in their hourglasses, Death was just another icy draft, a
flair of pain in aching joints, the catch of a breath.
Death flicked his long black coat back with leather gloved fingers and
rested his thumbs inside his trouser pockets. He wore this body like a
suit, chosen with this particular client in mind. His pace was even and
steady, footsteps silent against the tiled floor. Whether people parted
before him, or perhaps by chance, he continued unobstructed --
unimportant except to note he would not be delayed.
Death had an appointment.
The businessman perched on the yellow line like a plump grey pigeon, a
permanent crease between heavy salt and pepper eyebrows. The man folded
and unfolded his newspaper, flicking out the pages with a loud snap,
then firmly creasing the folds. Somedays the newspaper was a weapon to
shoo off insects or the homeless. Other days it was a shield to hide
behind. Today it was a prop to make clear his annoyance for the
ever-constant train delays.
Death had pencilled him in for 15:32.
Death stepped beside the businessman, close even on such a busy
platform, and it was only a moment before the businessman looked up and
then quickly away. He dug around inside a pocket and pulled out a
couple of quarters.
“I’m not after your change,” said Death. The man’s scowl deepened and he re-pocketed the coins.
“Well, I don’t have time for any nonsense,” the man said, voice tight
and a little rough from years of smoking. He’d quit just as many years
ago, but his teeth were still stained and the cold made his lungs burn,
especially on days such as these.
“Oh, I know. You’re out of time full stop.” Death held out a hand and
the businessman shook it out of habit, unable to hold back a shiver. “I
am Death. We’ve an appointment.” Death had selected a voice that was
smooth, educated and left the businessman feeling unsettled. It
instilled an anxious throb, a sense of loneliness wrapping tight, of
regretting saying “Yes” too many times to all the wrong things, and
“No” to all the things worth something.
The businessman hunched his shoulders, tucking his paper under his arm as he shook his head firmly.
“That can’t be right. I’ve a very important meeting in the morning and
there’s a proposal due Tuesday that still needs to be written up.”
“It’s not something you can choose.”
“Well, I happen to disagree,” the businessman said firmly.
“Convince me then. Why should I come back another day?”
The businessman opened his mouth and, for the first time after years of
being verbally verbose, impressing clients and wives and bosses alike,
his mind went blank.
“My job is very important,” he managed. Death raised a finely arched eyebrow, unimpressed.
“And you’re irreplaceable?”
The businessman said “Yes”, but he couldn’t help thinking of that
brown-nosing lad, Troy, who had the bosses eating out of his palm and
was annoyingly good at his job. Would they even wait a day before his
ergonomically designed chair was given to Troy?
But money and work wouldn’t impress Death.
Death smirked. “I’ll give you an extra year if you can convince me.”
“Only a year?” The businessman cried out, thinking of his last wife --
an ex in all but the paperwork -- who’d escaped to San Francisco,
claiming it was the furthest she could get from him without crossing
oceans. His kids were long grown up. He’d burnt his bridges with his
daughter. His son had thrown up a digital wall, texting to cancel lunch
dates he had no intention of keeping in the first place. The
businessman had not minded all that much.
What could he do in a year? Travel somewhere unfamiliar? Fall in love?
Learn something new? He was too old for any of that rubbish. He’d lost
just as many women as he’d loved; he’d travelled all around the world
on pleasure and business, until none of that was remotely appealing
anymore. He’d learnt all he needed to know.
“How about a month then?”
The display board flickered and his train’s arrival time changed to two minutes.
A month? What could he do in a month? It would be too painful to try to
reconnect with his children knowing his time was up. That wouldn’t be
fair for anyone. May as well let them hate him if that would mean
they’d grieve less. He openly admitted to himself that he was too
selfish and stubborn to try.
“Okay, a day. One more day.”
Work wouldn’t miss him. His wife definitely wouldn’t. His kids? At
least his will would offer them some consolation. Their therapists
probably had a field day with their “daddy issues” and he allowed the
guilt to settle in his chest rather than pushing it away with
self-indulgence and denial like he usually did. He just wanted to be
home in his favourite chair -- the one he’d had since college, the one
that had survived all three wives. It smelt vaguely of cigars and burnt
coffee. He wanted to finish his book. He was two-thirds of the way
through and he desperately wanted to know how it ended.
He could see it, tented open on the arm of his chair, a cup of cold tea
forgotten on the floor. If he’d know this would be his last day, he’d
have rinsed the bathroom sink of the ring of hair he’d left whilst
shaving, maybe changed his sheets, gathered up all the cups scattered
on bookshelves and dressers, residues of dark tea inside. The last mark
he’d leave on this world easily washed away.
“I want to know how it ends,” the businessman said softly, gripping his
newspaper between sweaty palms. “I don’t know how it ends.”
“Sadly, I’m afraid,” Death said regretfully, clapping the businessman
on the shoulder kindly. He left it there as the train rattled closer.
“I guess now is as good a time as any,” the businessman said. Death
tightened his grip. The lights of the oncoming train flashed across the
rails and the afternoon rush of people began to jostle.
“It’s okay. The next step is easy,” Death said. The businessman closed his eyes and stepped forward into the train’s path.
© 2017 Ferne Merrylees
Bio: Ferne Merrylees recently completed her PhD in Creative
Writing at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She had a short
science fiction story published in SWAMP, an online magazine for
postgraduate creative writing, and her novella Kangaroo Feathers was
published by Bookbound Publishing when she was sixteen. She writes a
blog that reviews speculative fiction (www.fernemerrylees.com),
and she has a growing twitter following @fernemerrylees.
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