by Ash Krafton
Ellie remained with the boy long after his body had cooled.
Jacob looked asleep, dark, lush lashes spread across his paling cheeks. His hair was still damp from the sponge bath the nurses gave him. It stuck in thick locks to the sides of his face. He’d hated getting washed by the nurses during his brief stay. Ellie didn’t think he would have enjoyed it this last time, either.
Asleep. That’s how Jacob had looked, lying on a cold steel gurney in the dimly lit basement room. At peace.
It wasn’t how she felt.
Although her shift ended at three that afternoon, Ellie was still at the hospital long past suppertime. The funeral director was out of town and wouldn’t get to the hospital until evening. She couldn’t stand the thought of the little boy in that cold room all alone. He was only five and afraid of the dark.
She’d been Jake’s charge nurse since his admission a week earlier when he came in with a swollen knee. He left in a zipper bag. Cause of death: suspected blood clot. No autopsy performed at the parents’ request. They couldn’t accept the death, let alone allow him to be opened and examined like a specimen.
Ellie understood completely. What good was knowing why he died? A definitive answer wouldn’t reverse the outcome. She urged the exhausted parents to go home, get some sleep. They had difficult plans to make in the morning. She promised she’d stay with Jake until the funeral director came for him.
The mother, numb with shock, nodded her head. It was a kindness. Jake shouldn’t be alone. It was a compassion only another mother would understand—
Ellie did understand, all too well.
It was almost ten by the time Ellie emerged from the quiet hospital. The night was blacker than usual—dawn was a long way off and storm clouds had muffled the stars. By the time Ellie crossed the nearly-empty lot and reached her car, the first drops of rain had begun to fall, filling the air with the dusty smell of a dry summer.
Ellie paused and inhaled deeply. It was a welcomed smell, the smell of a drought about to end.
She started the engine just as the first flash of lightning illuminated the darkness. She hated driving in the rain. Familiar roadways became unknown and unpredictable and her tires weren’t the greatest—one more thing she’d been meaning to remedy but never found the time.
Pulling out of the lot, she rounded the corner and pulled onto the main street. The rain fell steadily, blurring the street lights. A flash of lightning lit up the wet street in liquid silver, leaving shadows in its afterimage.
One of these shadows suddenly loomed by her side. Ellie blinked, trying to refocus. The shadow looked like someone sitting in the passenger seat. The next street light showed it wasn’t a trick of the light.
She screamed and jerked the steering wheel, swerving toward the line of parked cars.
“Not yet,” he said. The voice was a hollowed wind, the rustle of wings, the sweep of dry leaves on their branches.
The car straightened itself, the wheel sliding under her white-knuckled hands. The car continued its pace down the rain-slicked streets, the streetlights coming in pulses between spots of blackness.
She gaped at the figure, a chilly looming presence. A dark hood draped over his face, concealing it. The hood flowed down over his body like a cloak. His hand, the only part of his body she could see, looked gaunt. Sinister.
The scent of rosemary wafted through the car. She inhaled deeply without meaning.
“What do you want?” Her voice was a tight whisper. A thousand violent scenarios ripped through her mind.
“A favor.” The shadowy specter raised his hand, palm turned upward in supplication.
She saw only the gleam of white bones, devoid of skin or sinew. They picked up the scattered fragments of light, seeming to glow against the endless darkness of his robes.
“You.” She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. He looked exactly as she had always feared he would.
“You know me.” Death sounded amused, in a dry way. His words came out a breathy whisper that surrounded her. It made itself intimate, alluring, personal.
Ellie wanted none of it. “I know exactly who you are. I devote my career to keeping you at bay. Are you real?”
He tipped his head, a gentleman. “I am.”
“Then go away. I’m not ready to die.”
“It’s not what you think,” he said. His voice was textured, deep and whispery and solid all at once. He lifted a finger to his shoulder. “You remember Jacob?”
Ellie stumbled on a breath when she heard the name. Air suddenly seemed to solidify, her heart lobbing against her ribs. She raised her chin and glanced in the rear-view.
A smaller shadow sat in the back seat. The shag of brown hair was all too familiar. Something inside her crumpled with grief.
“Hi, Nurse Ellie.” He stood and leaned between the seats. She loved how he spoke so fast he ran his words together. Nur-selly. “Don’t be scared.”
“Oh, sure.” Her laugh was high-pitched and too loud. “Don’t be scared. The Grim Reaper is sitting right—”
“Not Grim.” Death interrupted her with a wave of his slender hand, long finger bones like a fiddler’s bow. “Never grim.”
She shrugged a question at him.
He sighed. “I made a mistake.”
Ellie slowed as she approached a red light and gently braked, unable to look at him. His voice had held such sorrow that it caused her own to resurface. “How?”
“I took him too soon.”
The red light seemed painted. Ellie gripped the steering wheel, knuckles pale. “You take them all too soon.”
“No, I don’t. I take each at their time and I tend to each one. I bring each soul across and I escort them to the After. Nobody makes that journey alone.”
“And he made a boo boo,” piped Jacob’s voice from the back seat.
“To my profound grief.” Death reached over his shoulder. Jacob stretched to touch his hand, patting it in a comforting gesture before sitting back down.
Ellie shook her head. This was crazy. She was talking to ghosts, one of whom was playing with the seatbelts in the back seat and singing the Spongebob Squarepants theme. And yet, she couldn’t keep from continuing the impossible conversation. “What does your mistake mean for Jake?”
“I failed. It wasn’t his time. But I cannot reverse the error. Nor…” He bowed his head, hunching in the seat. “Nor can I take him to the After.”
“No. He’s not stuck because he has you.”
“I…” Ellie cleared her throat. “I don’t understand.”
Jacob clapped his hands. “You come with me, Nur-selly.”
“Come with—” Ellie’s heart skipped a beat, her palms sweating against the steering wheel. “Why? I’m not ready to die. Am I?”
“No.” Death shook his head. “But you are compassionate. You gave this boy a compassionate death. Why?”
An entire city block passed before she answered. “It’s my job.”
“No, it’s not. Your job was done long before you walked away from him.”
“I felt a connection, okay?”
A new emotion surfaced, one she had worked hard to keep pushed deep down. Nonetheless, her voice took on a newer, harder edge. “You know. You already know.”
“I do. I remember the other one. Your son.”
Nodding, she wiped the sudden spill of tears away, denying them, unwilling to wear this private grief. “Was Bobby…was he a mistake?”
“No. He was not.”
The tears overcame her resistance and she gave up, letting them flow. Death reached out with a tentative touch on her shoulder. The offering was unsure but, when she didn’t pull away, the gesture became confident and solid, like a mother’s embrace.
It only made her angry again.
“Why!” She slapped his hand away. “Why did you take him from me? I held him as his last breath deserted him. I watched his life leave his body. Watched his face change. Watched his eyes just—forget me.”
Death pulled his hand away. “It was his time.”
“So why are you here? To torture me? One little boy wasn’t enough?”
“Elayne, I believe in second chances.”
“Really? Second chances? You know I how felt watching Jake go. I relived every minute. That was one hell of a second chance!”
“I know you never found peace. And I know you never will.”
Her nose began to block up, changing her voice, making her sound young and vulnerable. “Thanks for telling me.”
“Thus, the second chance.”
Ellie turned off the main road onto a side street leading to the Hill Section of town. All this talk of second chances didn’t make sense. Life wasn’t a do-over, not even when you’d give your right arm to go back a year, a day, even two minutes. She wanted it to make sense, wanted to know there was purpose in this. She shook her head in frustration. “I just don’t follow you.”
Jacob reached up and put his hand on her shoulder. “He means me.”
“But you died, buddy.” She met the boy’s gaze in the mirror. “That’s not a second chance.”
“But it is,” Death said. “You need each other. And, in return, I promise a compassionate death. Please.”
“Please, Nur-selly.” Jacob sounded so plaintive, so small. “For me.”
Suddenly, she understood. The clarity of his pitiful request was sharp, almost painful. She understood everything and she hated knowing it took her this long to see it.
Ellie swallowed hard. Her apartment was just down the street, the last house before the steep hill. All she had to do was park the car and walk away. All she had to do was say no. Death had already taken so many people from her, although when he came for her son, the dark specter had finally broken her. Stolen something from her. Left her hollowed and wanting and inconsolable.
But now, he sat next to her in her Jetta, begging a favor. She could deny him and take her vengeance at last. She could leave him clawing at the edges of desperation, trying desperately to hang onto his world while everything slips away.
If only Jacob didn’t sit in the back seat, humming Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. She didn’t stop feeling like a mother just because Death stole her only child away.
She took a deep breath, tasting the petrichor, savoring the simple comfort. “Will it hurt?”
“I promise.” Death shook his head. “No pain. Just take my hand.”
He held out his hand, that bundle of brittle bones, fingers splayed.
Ellie looked in the rear view mirror one last time.
Jacob smiled up at her. “It’s okay. He held my hand, too.”
Ellie pondered Death’s outstretched hand a moment before slipping her fingers between his. His grasp was warm and soft, nothing at all like what she thought it would be.
Jacob leaned around the seat and wrapped his arms around her neck, snuggling against her. “Thank you.”
The accelerator sank beneath her foot, flat to the floor. She couldn’t move her legs. Death gave her hand a reassuring squeeze and she relaxed, letting her head sink back against the head rest. She raised her eyes to look at Jacob in the mirror. In the sparse light, he momentarily looked like her son.
“Close your eyes,” Death said. His voice was a whisper, a feather touch that nestled against her skin. Familiar. Comforting.
Ellie surrendered to him. Her eyes drifted closed, sparing her the sight of the looming cement barricade at the bottom of the hill. It prevented her from having to witness the one thing she’d always feared would be thrust upon her. Ellie closed her eyes and squeezed Death’s hand, melting into his warmth, finding comfort at last.
There was no pain.
Spreading its wings, peace descended and brought those weary hearts to rest. Lightning flashed. The car’s momentum came to a crashing halt. Hand in hand, Ellie and Jacob continued on in search of a different kind of light.
Compassionate Death smiled, as he always does, and watched them go before turning his back, in search of his next companion.
© 2011 Ash Krafton
Originally published Absent Willow Review, January 2011.