The sliding glass doors closed behind me and I stepped out into the crisp autumn air, the warmth of the hospital foyer dissipating. I glanced up at the flashing neon sign of a red cross, shrugging my coat tighter over my shoulders in the face of the misty rain falling from the heavens.
The doctor had called earlier today requesting I be accompanied to my appointment by a loved one, but he could not have known I was alone in the world. His face had registered surprise at my solitary status, his eyes squinting in concern as he explained my predicament. My lack of despair at my diagnosis had been alarming to both him and to me. Cancer. Three months. Most likely a painful death.
Turning down a side street, I gazed up with a serene numbness at the darkness of the approaching storm. The last light of day was being masked by the heavily pregnant clouds and I imagined I could see a winged angel flying high above, a guardian ready and waiting to take me home. In only three months’ time I would be able to see my parents again, wherever they were. And if an afterlife didn’t exist, then I could sleep in an eternal slumber, forever oblivious to humanity’s existential existence. There was only one thing I wish I could have experienced, and it was a desire so great that the regret simmered and burned deep in my chest. I’d never tasted the sweet sensation of being in love. I’d seen it happen many times, watching on in silent agony as my single friends paired off and disappeared into a seemingly unreachable void of love and completeness.
I sucked in a deep breath to steady my emotions, fumbling for my keys when I spied my car sitting under the swaying branches of a liquidambar tree. I hadn’t realised how far I’d parked from the hospital, and how cold and dark it would be. A violent wind blew my thick brown hair in front of my eyes, and I cursed when my keys slipped from my fingertips. Flicking my hair back from my face, I crouched down and reached for my keys. The loud scuff of a shoe sent a wave of pins and needles coursing up my arms and legs. I lifted my head and swallowed. Standing next to my car, back pressed into the trunk of the liquidambar, was a tall, dark-haired man wearing a black coat and hood. I cursed again.
‘An unusual greeting,’ he said, voice deep and full of unexpected warmth.
‘What are you doing next to my car?’ I stood up with a painful slowness and held my breath as I waited for his next move. There wasn’t one. He remained standing by my car with a relaxed stance that was both unnerving and eerily familiar.
‘What are you doing here?’ I flicked a few anxious glances to my left and right. The footpath was devoid of any other pedestrians, and the road too, was deserted.
The man straightened his back. ‘I am Death and I am here to grant you one wish, and one alone. But it cannot be used to cure your cancer or prevent your death, nor can you wish for more wishes or transfer the wish to another. It is for you, and you alone. And finally, you cannot bring someone back to Earth if they have already completed their journey here.’
I stood in silent disbelief at the man standing in front of me. He was of average height and build and was altogether rather unremarkable, with the type of face you would look at once and then instantly forget. Except for one thing. His eyes were a dazzling blue and were completely defying the laws of physics by glowing like two miniature suns in the gloominess of the night.
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘I told you, I’m Death.’
‘Bullshit.’ I projected my voice with as much confidence as I could muster, all the while scanning his hands and arms for weapons. He didn’t appear to be holding any.
Death noticed my inspection and smiled. ‘You can choose not to believe me, but if you do, you’ll be missing your one chance.’
‘This is insane.’ But even still, I could feel a hair-raising chill descend upon my shoulders. There was something very wrong about the man standing in front of me, call it a sixth sense, but I knew he was telling the truth. How else had he guessed my recent diagnosis? He could have made an educated guess, or somehow got his hands on my file, but regardless, it was a little odd.
‘Your wish?’ Death said with a smile.
I imagined telling him to get lost and leave me alone, but something stopped me. The void was beckoning. ‘You’re probably pulling my leg… and it’s a pretty cruel thing considering what I’ve just gone through. But if I had to have one wish…’ I paused, looking up into the distance, though careful to keep him in my peripheral vision.
‘What is it?’ Death said, his eyes burning into mine with a curious intensity.
‘Are you truly Death?’
I breathed in deeply. ‘And do you do this often?’
‘Do what often?’ He raised an eyebrow in amusement, and I had the feeling that he knew exactly what I was about to say.
‘Offer wishes to dying people.’
Death shook his head. ‘You are the one and only human I will ever grant a wish to.’
My body tingled from a surge of adrenaline, my heart beat accelerating and my cheeks flushing with heat. Clenched by my side, my palms became clammy from sweat and the fine sheen of mist hovering between us. ‘But… why me?’
‘What do you mean?’ Though Death’s face was partly hidden in shadow, I could still see the dim outline of his haunted expression.
‘Why are you offering me a wish at all? There are billions of people on this planet, and hundreds of far more deserving people behind me in that hospital. I know I’m dying… but lots of people die. I mean, you would know, right?’
Death tilted his head, his teeth flashing white in the darkness. It was an unpractised smile, but a smile nonetheless. ‘You’re far more intriguing than I thought you would be. When you found out you were dying, your emotional response was without fear. Peculiar.’
‘You were there… in the hospital with me, when I found out?’
Death nodded. ‘Yes. And even now you are showing an abnormal reaction to my presence.’
I flushed again. ‘I’m not afraid of death, I’ve never been.’ Then I shook my head at the absurdity of my situation, for I had every reason to be afraid, yet here I was standing in front of Death with a somewhat unnatural acceptance. If this man was death, then I would be happy to die.
‘Indeed, you are not afraid of me, but I sense there is something else you fear above all.’
‘No, there isn’t anything else.’
‘You can’t lie to me.’
‘It’s none of your business!’ My chest burned with humiliation. Did he want me to spell it out clearly for him? That I was alone and unloved in this world? That I was terrified I would never experience true love?
A long awkward silence extended between us until he shifted against the tree. ‘I see that I’ve upset you, I apologise.’
‘You’re apologising? Really?’
‘I suppose I am.’ And Death smiled his unnatural smile again, but this time I could see that he was genuinely concerned that he had upset me. I moved uncomfortably under his all-encompassing stare.
‘Well fine then. I accept your apology.’
Death had the audacity to look relieved as he continued. ‘And now will you finally tell me your wish?’
‘Almost. I have just one other question… when I die, will you see me again? Wherever it is that we go?’
Death shook his head. ‘No, I am the bringer of your death here on Earth, but I do not go with the souls to their eternal destination.’
An interesting and slightly disturbing wish that had been slowly developing at the back of my mind burst forth and paraded itself in front of my eyes. I blanched at the realm of tantalising opportunities presented to me. Could I dare make such a wish? The consequences would be harsh if I did, including the possibility that I might never see my parents again. And I knew that Death would be furious when he learned of my absurd wish, especially if he had no choice but to grant it. I pushed away a pang of sadness and smiled, making peace with my choice. ‘Ok, I’ve come up with one.’
I smiled again and looked at him directly in the eyes, pausing for as long as possible so he could understand that I was being serious. ‘I wish… for Death to fall in love with me.’
Death blinked slowly, looking me up and down in awed surprise. ‘I can’t grant you that wish.’
‘But… it doesn’t clash with your requirements. You never mentioned I couldn’t make someone fall in love with me. I mean, come on, haven’t you seen Aladdin?’
‘Why would you want such a wish?’ I could see the desperation begin to creep into his eyes. He was afraid. I had pushed him to an edge that he had never stood on.
‘You know why. When I die, you’ll be separated from me forever. Call it… revenge, if you wish. Revenge for all the people who have ever existed who have lost loved ones or had their life stolen from them when they had so much more to do with their lives. Stolen by you.’
Death looked lost, eyes dimming with a possible future memory of pain and heartache. ‘I’ll cure your cancer.’
‘Thank you, but that’s not what I wished for.’
Death breathed in deeply, lines of anger snaking across his face. ‘You don’t understand.’
‘Yes I do. I’ve got you cornered. You of all people must have witnessed the effect that death… that you have on the loved ones left behind, the pain and devastation they go through. Do you really think you deserve to miss out on that?’
Death swallowed and pulled his hood from his face. ‘No, it would be far less than what I deserve.’
With his hood pulled back, I could see Death’s expressions more clearly in the golden glow from a distant street light, and they were etched with pain and confusion. My stomach did a little dive at the thought of causing him so much hurt and despair, this stranger who I felt like I’d known for an eternity.
I ran my hand through my hair and sighed. ‘I’m sorry… I was only joking. You don’t have to grant me anything. I just wanted you to feel for a moment what I felt when I lost my parents.’ I forced myself to look back up at him, only to see that his devastated expression hadn’t changed. Something was wrong, very wrong.
Death took one step toward me, a deadly look on his face. ‘You still don’t understand, do you? I have to save you, I don’t have a choice.’ His expression melted into a frown, his dazzling eyes staring into mine. And then I saw it, a flicker of an alien expression sparked in his eyes. Love.
‘You have to save me? But why? What do you mean?’ My eyes widened as I continued to observe the shadow of conflicting emotions passing through his eyes. Love, fear, doubt and hope.
Death shook his head and smiled sadly. ‘Your wish was granted from the moment you uttered it. And because I see time differently from you, it is about to be and has always been granted, why else do you think I am here trying to save you?’
My heart fluttered, and then I knew… why I had never been afraid to die. I had been waiting all this time, waiting for Death to find me.