The Encounter

This is a flash fiction I’ve been working on for a little bit. It’s still a work in progress, including the title, just a fair warning. I’ve always loved writing sort of entities as people, kind of in a Good Omens way. I was particularly interested in the humanization of Death after reading the Book Theif and it’s taken off since.

I wasn’t always the guy that no one wanted to see. I used to be the CEO of a great technology company. I started my company from nothing and tried my best to be an excellent CEO to my employees. I had my fair share of shitty bosses and shitty jobs. I thought I was a good CEO; I tried to keep my employees engaged and provide services to make it a welcoming environment. As the company gained popularity, I increased pay and allowed time off. When I was a software engineer at my old job, people used to wince when my boss entered the room. People would smile and greet me when I came into the room as the boss. 

And now, I’ve become the boss I never wanted to be. Most of the time, people cried when they saw me, or they yelled occasionally in fear, or they would be asleep and wouldn’t have to face me. They would only see a flash of me, or who I’ve become before I grazed my hand over their eyes and let them slip into their new life. I was living the dream life as a ruler of a Fortune 500, and now I’m the ruler of the dead. Where the hell did I go wrong?

The day I saw Death, they wept for me. 

“You’re so young… you’re so young.”

I had been so injured I could barely speak. But I saw them there; I saw the face of Death. I wish I didn’t talk to him. Maybe if I kept quiet, he wouldn’t know that I was the one meant to take over. 

“Are you going to kill me?”

It was all I said. I wasn’t in the wrong to ask that – Death is a terrifying image. They’re moving black steam. No eyes, no mouth. The words they spoke to me were not out loud but appeared in my head. I thought I was hallucinating until I became the steam.

 What would have come of me if I refused to acknowledge their presence? Would Death have to find another person who could speak to them? I’ve spent nearly 30 years as Death, and even I don’t know the rules. No rule book dictates how Death works; that’s how I thought it would be. I thought someone had to teach me. But it came naturally like I had been taking lives for centuries. A simple wave over the eyes. I say simple, like each person’s life I take isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

The first person I took was an older man. I didn’t know anything about him. I learned fast to get context clues from where I was. This man seemed to be in a hospital- he was asleep, and a younger woman was asleep on the guest couch beside him. Daughter, I assumed. I felt guilty for a moment because I felt a bit of relief. This man would go peacefully in his sleep. Maybe, just maybe, this whole Death thing can’t be that horrible.

But then I heard a loud beep, and the woman on the couch woke up in a panic. As I watched her run over to the man, crying and hyperventilating, I felt like a terrible person. To assume I could take someone’s life and it would be easy. These people had families. Loved ones. I had a family.

It got worse as the years went on. Kids, a lot of kids. Some from sickness and some from violence. I never knew if I should get it over quickly or slowly with the kids. Sometimes their parents were there, and I wanted to give them as many minutes together as possible. And then, sometimes, I could tell I was walking into a violent scene where there were no loved ones, no friends, no family around. I tried to make those go quickly for them, but slow or fast, none of them are easier. Either way, I’m watching families sob over their dead child or a wounded and bleeding child go.

For the last 30 years, I’ve debated whether I want to find someone to speak to me. At first, I was in a race to find the next person. Every hand I waved, I crossed my fingers to see if they would say something. But the more I saw, the less I wanted someone else to experience this- but I wanted it to stop. It was a pull between selfishness and selflessness, though sometimes I thought that not wanting to be a killer wasn’t selfish. I ruined enough people’s lives, and besides, it was an inevitable fact that occurred for millenniums that the first person who spoke to the current Death would inevitably take over the position, and the current Death would finally be allowed to die. It wasn’t like there wasn’t a Death who wouldn’t find someone to take over. There is always someone out there. There are 8 billion people out there. 

Today, I had my usual bunch. Quite a few health issues from people older, usually older than 60. But there was also a handful of children who died of illness. With the adults, sometimes I would look around at files on hospital tables to know who I was looking at, to give them some humility. But even decades later, I still can’t bring myself to get to know the children-

“What’s your name?” 

I lifted my head outside of a car wreck. A white truck had skidded to the side of the road, and an SUV was upside down a quarter of a mile down the road. Based on the distance, it must have flipped twice—or three times. But the girl sitting on the road between the two cars drew my attention the most. She must have been 12 or so. A book was dropped between the flipped car and the girl, which made me think she crawled to where she was now, dropping her book along the way. She looked…okay. She was pretty scraped up, but I had been to some gorey car accidents where the people weren’t even responsive. And those accidents had far less damage to the cars.

What startled me the most was that this girl was speaking to me. I turned to see if I wasn’t missing any police officers or ambulances that showed up at the scene, but it was empty. No one had come out of the white truck yet, which worried me that they were dead too, but my attention was more on the girl. After 30 years, this was not who I wanted to take over. I wanted it to be one of the people that went in their sleep or someone older…not a kid. I thought of what Death said when I spoke to him.

“You’re so young… you’re so young.”

But I wasn’t young. I was employed, and I was several years past adulthood. I had an apartment in the city and a girlfriend who just moved in with her dog. I had a job and a salary, and I went places, I went to so many places. I had a family who would post my birthday on Facebook every year with some awful photo of me attached. I learned two languages and how to cook (not well). I was interviewed by business magazines, and once someone told me I was their idol. I was someone’s idol.

The girl in front of me was young. She looked younger than a teenager and hadn’t even finished middle school yet. 

“What?” I finally said. The girl didn’t look scared of me. She looked hopeful like I was going to help her. 

“What’s your name?”

I stood there. I wanted to wipe my hand and get it over, but I couldn’t.

And then I did what I never thought I would do. I responded.

“My name is Joshua.”

I hadn’t said my name in so long that it felt foreign, like it wasn’t my name anymore.

“My name is Laurel. Have you seen my parents?”

Laurel. She shouldn’t have told me her name. I started to picture the life Laurel could have lived.

I tried to shake my head, but I remembered all she was seeing was a shadowy figure, 

“I haven’t, I’m sorry.”

Her mouth shifted to the right side of her face.

“That’s okay. Someone hit our car really hard and when I got out I thought they would have gotten out too. I think I need them to take me to the doctors, my head kind of hurts.”

So that’s what she was going to die of. Brain injury. That’s why she didn’t look hurt. It was internal.

I stopped to think about what I could do. I had been waiting for this. I could be done right now. I’ve waved my hand enough times. This was no different. But it’s different when you start talking to the dying person. I could place a name on the face, and a person becomes a person when you know a name. 

If I were to spare her, what would happen? I had no book to guide me. When you’re a human, the higher power you worry about is God and Death. But now I am that higher power…who would punish me? God? It’s been 30 years, and I haven’t seen God. We certainly would have interacted by now if he and I were buddies. So, who would get hurt if I were to spare one life out of millions?

“I think I know where a hospital is Laurel. Why don’t I bring you there and I’ll come back for your parents. I don’t want your headache to get worse while we wait.”

She thought about it and nodded, standing up. 

“Thank you for helping me Joshua.”

I walked alongside the 12-year-old girl who could speak to death, unsure of what my fate as death would be, but that wasn’t important right now. 

In 30 years of being the killer, I was ready to save someone.

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