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A Deadly Flirtation
They say that if you pick a job you love, you will never work a day in your life. I cannot claim to have worked a day in my life, but my feelings regarding my work are far from affection; on the contrary, my career would kill me if it could. Nevertheless, my extermination would not rid my profession of me or I of it, for we are bound together as certainly as life and death themselves, and besides, my termination would simply incite further work for me. In fact, I will go as far as to say that I cannot die. Whether or not I qualify as immortal is another question; after all, I have never lived to begin with. If one should happen to gaze upon me, they would know me instantaneously, even though I rarely fit a person's pre-conformed notions. After all, who expects a pale and petite girl, with dark, curled locks lighting upon her fair skin, to be the face of Death? People believe I jest rarely, but I always crack a smile at the thought that perhaps the shock on a person's face the second they join me is not so much because they find themselves dead, but because they have discovered Death’s aberrant true appearance.
Of course, shock is not the only reaction I receive. I used to believe there were two types of dead people: those who welcomed me, and those who rejected me. Both groups contained a wide spectrum of citizens; after all, I do encounter every person to ever grace the face of their earth with a semblance of a presence. In first group-- those who welcome me-- the lighter half of the spectrum consists of the elderly, who have lived into their golden years and beyond, and are now prepared fully to move on. As I steal to their bedsides and pull them from their bodies, they smile up at me and comment, "What took you so long?" After being asked this trillions of times, it does get rather tiresome; nevertheless I accept the question with a smile of my own because of their truly warm-hearted manner. In the middle of this spectrum I generally find those who have only recently accepted me. These souls often include the ill, injured, and the victimized; after months of fighting, I note the tiredness in their eyes and bodies as they offer me few words and a curt nod before preparing to continue on. Finally, haunting the darkest end, we find those who were so completely destroyed by their current life that they decided to take a gamble and hurry on to try their chances in the next. They collapse at my feet, pressing their tear-stained faces into the hem of my dress as they embrace me, and sing me the soft yet moving song of all of their joys and sorrows through their sobs before I coax them onward.
The other side of the coin is far less colorful. Although the cast does contain a variety of characters-- victims of tragedy, youths, and the general majority of humans afraid to die-- their reactions are generally the same. They scream and swear at me, clinging to their bodies and resisting my sharp tugs on their hand as they shriek about how "they're not ready!" Perhaps they aren't; it's not up to me to judge. I am simply the ill-favored pawn of higher powers. Sometimes their pure, unmerited disdain bothers me. People often refer to Death as being "cruel" and "unfair," when I find it justifiable to claim that I am the fairest being a person will have ever encountered. I don't question people, I neither favor nor deny a creature based on a quality, and I serve every person faithfully and dutifully in the same manner when their time comes. I am the only honest and true promise kept to those who live. But I digress.
Yes, I used to believe there were only two types of dead people. I now know there are three.
The first time I met him, he was but a child, no more than seven years in age. I should have sensed even then his peculiarness. My presence was requested at the scene ahead of time because the situation was so precarious that my skills were more than likely to be required. I arrived at the foot of a large evergreen. Its ominous dark point thrust high into the heavens and pierced the graying sky. The form of the small boy, dressed in a light blue sweater, crowned the peak. I just had time to make out his silhouette, and his small, chubby hand reaching upward to snatch yet another branch, when a crack resounded through the air. He teetered and then with a scream plummeted towards the ground. I braced myself, awaiting the instant when his corpse would crunch against the unforgiving earth. The intense hopelessness of the moment drew me close to his face and I could see his chestnut eyes widen in terror, flashing with a bright youthfulness that was sure to be extinguished in a matter of seconds. Those eyes blazed with flames of fear and awe as they regarded my approaching face. I could feel the air from his scream as certainly as he could feel the air whistling about his body; it cut me to the core. I extended my hand, preparing to reach forward and seize his spirit as his body became a bloody pulp mashed into the dusty face of the earth, but the tree beat me to it. One branch after another snatched at his form, the meddlesome needles snagging in the rough wool weave of his sweater. I heard several hard collisions with branches and then the boy landed on the ground. I surveyed the small form-- battered, bruised, and shaking, but very much alive. Slowly the boy turned his head and looked up at me, his eyes brimming with tears and questions. I regarded him for a moment, then turned away. I heard sobs beginning to pour from the boy, and as I left I wondered if he cried simply from the pain, or if he even then he was blessed with the wisdom to realize he had looked Death in the face and survived.
The second time I encountered the boy, he was about twelve. The day felt warm and clear and blue; the very sort of day people never expect to meet me on. I myself was surprised to have been called out on this day, and the location did nothing to alleviate my confusion. I found myself at the edge of a small, still, dark pond. Two boys rested in a modest wooden boat lulling near the center. They seemed alive enough, as their amiable laughter was audible from shore; try as I might, I couldn't get any closer, which meant neither tottered on the edge of death. I pulled out my notes and consulted them again.
I had just confirmed that I was indeed in the right location when I heard the splash. My head whipped up and I was immediately able to advance. Suddenly I found myself underwater, and before me, one of the boys struggled upward for air. Abruptly he clunked his head on the bottom of his vessel. The collision must have been rather forceful because the boat above us jerked, while the boy's own flailing stopped for a few costly seconds.
I studied him... I knew I had seen him before... He tilted his head up, and although his eyes were clouded and dazed, they regained a glimmer as they lit upon me, and I noticed sparks of recognition course through him. "You!" he gasped, and a bubble of precious, silvery, life-sustaining air escaped his lips and spiraled to the surface with the skill its master lacked. In the same instant that he focused on me I recognized him as the boy from the tree so many years ago.
I reached my hand forward for his, and this must have triggered some sort of rebellious instinct in him, for he immediately began kicking and fighting towards the surface with no avail. I could feel the life leave his limbs as the air left his lungs; with each expired breath I drew myself closer and closer. I was so near I could feel the heat leaving his body. I reached out, my hand lingering an inch away from his in the water, preparing for the moment when I could take it in my own... when yet again, someone else beat me to it.
The other boy from the boat had plunged into the water, and suddenly seized his friend, dragging him back to the surface, back to life, with short, powerful strokes. The moment their faces broke the surface-- the moment life undeniably returned to his body-- I was blasted backwards on a wave of force. I landed unceremoniously on the muddy bank; I stood, smoothing the skirt of my dress and brushing away the earth. When I had righted myself, I turned to see the blonde-haired boy pull his waterlogged friend into the boat. The dark-haired boy began sputtering and coughing, so I departed.
Roughly another five mortal years passed, I believe, before I was assigned a rather large task. I was stationed in a city-- I forget the name of it now; petty mortal names rarely have cause to trouble me. Although there was no immediate reason for my presence, I had been briefed that in a short while I would sorely be needed. As I roamed the streets, I could sense the clouds of discontent hanging low in the air, threatening to engulf the whole city at any given hour. Buried deep within the cloud, though, lurked a charge of rebellion and change, and I knew from my vast experience that soon the charge would grow into a lightning bolt and strike the earth with a powerful but frightening display of energy. And then it would only be a matter of time before the rain came.
It didn’t take me long to locate the source of the impending thunder: a group of thirty young people crowded in a dark room hidden below the face of the earth. As their murmurs regarding resistance, rebellion, and reform echoed throughout the room, demanding lives for change in life, I wondered how many of these people would be returning below the ground in a different way.
The cellar brimmed with a sea of people, barely distinguishable as separate beings by the candlelight which caught on their sweat-slickened brows and shone. Their forms were lost in the darkness, and thus they appeared like one large, multi-faced monster looming hungrily in the dark, waiting to burst free from its underground prison and devour the world around it. In the center of this conglomeration, set apart from the mass just barely by his position atop a stool, stood a well-built man. It was he who addressed the crowd, and the fiery words he was impassioned with set his whole frame a glow, separating him from the murky depths of the surrounding listeners. His locks of blond hair, sweeping carelessly across his face, augmented this illusion of flame. I paused for a few seconds in my timeless excuse of an existence to hear him speak, and was at once as entranced as the enraptured crowd.
The man's words created a bold, dazzling vision of a new world, and to the thirsting people in darkness, his words were appealing streams of water. He spoke of a new world, liberated from the oppression of the ages. His charismatic tongue created a utopia composed of equality, independence, and a devotion to seeking one’s own destiny. The purity of his passion was perfectly pronounced, and each of his words acted like a puff of pure oxygen greeting a dying ember. “We must bring about the change we seek, because the good Lord knows the dogs above us will refuse us our rights! Let us fight for what we believe in! We shall give them a reason to tremble, to lie in their beds under the shadow of fear: fear of us. Let them be afraid. Let them be afraid of the change that we can bring about when we rise to the occasion together. And let us rise boldly and demand the liberty that we deserve, demand the life that we deserve, and never back down until we have attained that life. And if we cannot attain life, let us attain Death in our quest for true life. It is said that the only reason an angel would wish to become a man is so that he may have the privilege of dying for what he believes in. Therefore, if Death should come, let us welcome Death. Let us welcome Death, because our Death will only be the beginning in another’s quest for true life!”
His oration aroused a tremendous huzzah, which I did partake in, mainly because of his suggestion to welcome Death. The room continued to erupt in roars of agreement, but I ceased to listen. I was musing over the finer points of his speech, vowing to question an angel if his statement was true next time I came across one, when my eyes lighted on him. It was just a flash of his face, pale and mature, framed with dark brown locks. There was nothing exceptionally remarkable about it, and indeed I would have regarded him as yet another mortal, if it had not been for the eyes. Within the light brown irises I recognized his soul-- and even more disturbingly, I thought he recognized me. It was only a moment, and perhaps I imagined it, but if that spark were to be believed, we would be meeting again soon.
Five days later, the flame which had been kindled in the furnace of that basement burst free and sought to ravage the entire city, scorching all of the living with in its radius. Naturally I labored night and day in these dire circumstances. Time, which already seemed eternal and indefinable to me, dragged on infinitely longer. Smoke-- white and pungent-- permeated the air, choking the lungs of the living. The spirits of the dying called to me, dragging me forward with the miserable melodies of their final breaths. I drifted into the unknown, guided by the haunting notes, when I encountered my newest clientele, slouching against the rough shell of a building. Both boys sported the visage of war; their skin an ashen canvas, shaded with crimson and hues of gray. I bent down to the closer one. He was alive, but barely; matted blonde hair, grime, and blood encased his face in a mask of death, and only the sputtering light in his eyes remained to ward it off. I gently touched his hand, prying his fingers away from the musket he so feverishly clutched. Tenderly I peeled his spirit away from his ravaged earthly shell, and brilliance of his unrestricted soul was blinding. In the light of unearthly clarity, I recognized him as the fiery youth who had been the ember at the heart of this whole matter. He met my gaze with an unreserved, even stare. “Am I correct in assuming that I am--”
“--on the threshold of eternity? Yes,” I answered plainly.
He paused, considering this. “Then it is accomplished. I gave my life for the cause I believed in. If I could have died a thousand times over, I would have chosen no end other than this, for there is no better way to go.” There was no doubt in the honey tones of his voice, only a quiet contentment seasoned with a touch of reverence. Ah, an idealist. He shook off his reverie, and considered me. “And now where to?”
“On,” I said simply, gesturing to the path forming before us. Only the beginnings of it were visible through the wisps of smoke. He squared his shoulders, turning to look at me one last time, granting me a prompt yet polite nod, before heading on. There was no fear in his eyes, and from my small knowledge of the various paths, he had nothing to fear.
I turned my attention to the remaining boy, and sighed in exasperation. It was the boy. Inches away from him, I could still hear the powerful cadence of his heartbeat, and I wondered if now would mirror the other times where I had been so very close. But no, the hole gouged in his abdomen by mortal weapons was far beyond mortal repair, and even now his lifeblood poured forth. I reached forward to caress his hand, when his eyes fluttered open. “You again,” he spoke suddenly, smirking slightly. “I should have known it’d be you.” He pressed his eyes closed once more, but his attitude displayed a leisurely defiance rather than an action of surrender. “So are you going to actually take me with you this time, or will it be like all the others where you failed?”
“I didn’t fail, I was misinformed. Your time had not drawn to a close, and so I was deterred,” I retorted with an air of annoyance.
“Right,” he agreed sarcastically. “And this time? Do you think you my time is actually up, or will I cheat Death once again?” He flashed me another impish smile, and his eyes twinkled irksomely.
“You didn’t ‘cheat’ me; you just weren’t ready those times! As opposed to this time, where I believe you’re beyond the deliverance of all but a miracle,” I countered, the aggravation in my voice becoming more pronounced.
“A miracle, eh? Well, considering I’ve gotten one or two of those before, I don’t think my chances are too bad. Besides, I’m feeling pretty strong.” Arrogantly he shifted to a more relaxed position, but despite the ease and confidence he attempted to radiate, I noticed the lances of pain shooting through his eyes, and noted the continued loss of color.
“Why are you putting it off?” I asked him quietly, all aggression evaporating from my tone.
“Putting it off? I’m not putting it off. I’m just enjoying my last minutes, getting my money’s worth,” he replied defensively, an edge of hysteria to his voice.
“The man before you, he came quietly, and willingly, and it only took a minute. Why prolong your suffering?”
The boy shifted his gaze to land incredulously on the corpse of his newly departed companion. “He came quietly?” he asked me skeptically.
“Well he sure didn’t put up the fuss that you’re giving me,” I responded impatiently. “He accepted his death, viewing it as ‘the greatest gift he could give’ and ‘the only way he would have had it,’ or something along those lines.”
“Ah, of course he would think that,” the boy responded softly, mostly to himself. He returned his attention to me, and the playfulness departed from his eyes as they penetrated mine. “And what do you think? Do you think a human life is worth an idea? Do you think that the existence of one, let alone many, should be forfeited for a mere daydream or thought that happened to flit across the mind of another singular individual?” The simple earnestness of his question caught me off guard, and I considered it for a moment.
“I’m not sure that I possess the perspective necessary to properly evaluate this question. I have never been alive, so it’s difficult for me to judge the value of a life. Nevertheless, I hardly viewing dying as the travesty most mortals make it out to be. Thousands of people will die today, and thousands more will die tomorrow, and I will forever be here to lead them onto eternity. In any case, everyone will die eventually, and although you don’t absolutely require a purpose, I suppose having one makes the transition seem somewhat more fulfilling.”
The boy remained pensive for a moment, contemplating my words. “When you put it that way, it hardly seems like a big deal at all. Nevertheless, I’m still not sold. What about everything you leave behind in this life?”
“What about it? You leave behind the good and the bad of this world, and embrace the good or the bad of the next, simple as that. You humans are far too concerned with possessions, whether they be physical, mental, or emotional. It’s quite unnecessary.”
The boy frowned. “I disagree. It’s important to own a sense of identity, and to have something tangible to leave behind in this world. If you pass through your whole life with no thoughts, no emotions, not a care for another in the world, I hardly believe you can claim to have even existed.”
“On the contrary, I have no way of leaving behind my thoughts or emotions, and yet I still exist. Although... I suppose I cannot claim to have lived. Nevertheless, I am here, and so are you, and there we have a problem. You are expected somewhere else right now, as am I, and while this chat has been rather pleasant, or at least engaging, you are making us both rather late, and it is time that we moved on,” I finished rather impatiently, before extending my hand again.
I thought I saw panic flash through the boy’s eyes, but if it had existed, it was replaced yet again by that infuriatingly flippant attitude. “One more question,” he pressed, and I huffed audibly. “If you have never lived, does that mean that a pretty girl like you has never known the care or the embrace of another?”
“Nonsense,” I scoffed, clearly aggravated. “I have held the hand of every being that has ever graced the surface of your shallow earth. I have been beaten by some, but I have been hugged by others, and--”
“Have you ever been kissed?” the boy inquired simply.
“What?” I questioned. Surely I had not heard him right.
“Have you ever been kissed? People always talk about ‘the kiss of Death,’ so have you ever been kissed? Or have you ever kissed someone?”
I fought to regain my composure. “That’s absurd, utter fabrication. Why would I do that? And besides, who would want to kiss me?” I blathered.
“I would,” the boy whispered in a hushed, amiable yet alluring tone.
“You jest,” I protested incredulously.
“No, I’m being honest. Kiss me.” His words came almost as a challenge, but there was a hint of urgency in his provocative invitation.
I felt myself gaping, and I struggled to form coherent words. “That-- that would be highly unorthodox of me, completely against protocol.”
“How would you know? How would anyone know, if it’s never happened before? Besides, I’ll die either way, right? If you kiss me, I’ll come right now, otherwise I’m sitting here for the remainder of my life, no matter how short it is. You’ll be even later, and in any case, you may never get another chance like this.”
I stared at the boy, unsure what to make of the strange predicament I found myself in. Finally, I consented. “Alright, I suppose.” The boy smiled at me, and I felt a shiver of excitement run through my lifeless excuse for a body. Suddenly I felt nervous and unsure. I had watched countless humans wait their whole lives for this moment, and only now did I grasp the dire sense of anticipation surrounding the occasion. What was I supposed to do again? I saw the boy bending towards me, his eyes closed. I closed my own eyes, and waited for the soft pressure of his lips to descend on mine... waited... waited... Was the moment really this long? Or did it just seem to take forever because I had anticipated this moment for forever? Perhaps he was just nervous too? He was, after all, ending his life with this kiss. I gave him another minute, before I gradually opened one eye... and then flung them both open with full force.
He was gone.
I cursed inwardly and reeled around in a frenzy. Where could he be? How dare he waste my time with these childish games, these acts of humiliation! Didn’t he realize he delayed the entire fate of humanity with his foolish mortal games? I screamed in vexation before sailing off in a fury.
It didn’t take long to find him, as he was inches away from the end of his life. His dire condition had prevented him from travelling far, and even as he ran he stumbled on every cobblestone and snatched at walls to prevent from falling. Blood leaked from his wound in a breadcrumb trail. I descended on him like an angry bird of prey preparing to seize its kill. Unfortunately this last show of renewed vigor prevented me from sequestering him there and then, but I still vehemently hissed at him, “Foolish boy! You can’t run from Death! Come with me this instant!”
His eyes were almost unfocused as he concentrated solely on maintaining forward movement, but even as he labored, he answered me. “I’m... not... running. I just... have something... more... to do...”
“Your time is up!” I screamed in frustration.
“Evidently not quite yet,” he said, groping pitifully at the rough wall of the building as he clawed his way along. Tremors shook his whole body, and his skin was whiter than my own. Suddenly he collapsed onto the door he was braced against, and fell into the building. Despite landing on the floor, I heard a contented sight amidst his abundance of haggard breaths. I followed him in with considerably more grace, and surveyed the high, airy ceilings. The door echoed as it shut.
“A church? While I admire your noble intentions, it would have saved us both a substantial amount of time and effort if you had simply come with me to start with, if it’s God you wish to talk to,” I remarked.
He didn’t seem to hear me, and I turned to see him dragging his body across the floor, leaving a rather large crimson smear. “Sylvia!” he rasped. “Sylvia!”
Abruptly there was a shriek and a flurry of movement, and suddenly a blonde girl who had been kneeling at the front of the chapel surged forward and crumpled beside the boy, clutching at him, laying his head in her lap, stroking his face lovingly. She wept openly: harsh, unregulated sobs. The sight of the boy’s physically demolished body destroyed her emotionally.
“Sylvia,” the boy whispered again. “Sylvia, I’m sorry. I know that before any of this ever started, I made you a promise: I promised that I would be the one person always come back, and that I would always be here for you. I regret the fact that I am only able to uphold half my promise. I came back, Sylvia, as I promised I would, but I can’t stay, not long. I can’t always be here for you.”
The intensity of the girl’s cries increased.
“Believe me, if there was someway I could stay, I would, Sylvia. I would stay a hundred, no, a thousand years, just so that I could be here with you, so I could be that person who didn’t leave you, who was different from all the rest. But people aren’t meant to live forever; people are meant to live and die. I’ve lived, Sylvia, I have truly lived. And now I’m going to die.”
The cries coming from the girl’s mouth filled the solemn silence of the church, causing me to recall the celestial strains of angelic laments, sad and soulful. The boy continued on, and I could tell he was nearing the end in all applicable meanings of the word as I drew closer to him. “I know I failed in keeping all my promises to you, but nevertheless, will you indulge me once? Grant me one pledge. I know with an unwavering certainty that Death will come for you one day. Promise me that before that day comes, you will stand up and live, and live a good life, so maybe we can see each other again. Promise me this, please?”
The bawling girl sobbed something between “I promise you” and “I love you,” and squeezed his body so tightly that the little life left in it would certainly be expelled. She laid her clean, tear-stained cheek against his own filthy, blood stained one, and as the light faded slowly from his eyes, she pressed her lips against his.
I doubt he ever felt them, for even as he fought to lean forward and meet hers, he found mine.
To this day, I, Death, the epitome of specters, have been haunted by the sheer intensity of that moment. An unceasing onslaught of feelings inundated my dormant senses. Warmth touched my features, a warmth which had previously forsaken this phantom, who had known only the cold of the crypt. The action in itself was heavenly-- the brush of his lips like the soft ruffle of angel’s wings, his final breath a sad sigh of the wind-- yet despite the pacific nature of his movements, the entire experience was positively electrifying. Before this moment, my mere shade of a presence had slipped easily between time and person and place, but now I was suddenly anchored to this juncture, this small prick in the ribbon of eternity. Following this paramount revelation, I became aware of a certain peculiarity: my face was wet. I wondered which mortal was the cause, whether it was from his blood, or the remainder of her tears. And then I realized they were mine. My tears. A river flowed from the previously arid and inactive pits of my eyes. In accordance with this current, a wave of awe briefly washed over me, closely pursued by a powerful tide of sadness. Standing knee-deep in this flood, I was struck by the feelings, all the feelings, and by the simple fact that I was able to feel.
We broke apart and regarded each other, as we had done so often over his numbered years upon the Earth, and then he smiled at me, before turning away.
I lingered for a moment, watching as he, the third type of person, went on: the boy who had cheated Death, who had kissed Death, who had saddened and excited and pained and promised Death.
The boy who had given life to Death.