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Death Breaks Her Promise

A fairy tale of love, pain, and opportunities lost and found.

By Addison HornerPublished 9 months ago Updated 4 months ago 8 min read
Death Breaks Her Promise
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

Death came when Quentin least expected: that is to say, late.

She strode through the door at five past nine. Bowler hat in hand, peacoat soaked by the sudden rain, blonde curls flying in every direction except the one ordained by gravity. Quentin watched her cross the linoleum, her corporeal form passing directly through the nurse on call before settling into the empty rattan chair reserved for loved ones.

She was shorter than he'd remembered. Then again, he'd been so young when they met. People change. Death doesn't.

Traffic, Death muttered, eyes down. She flicked her wrist, and the bowler hat folded itself out of existence. Sorry.

Quentin coughed, a difficult endeavor. "That's your excuse?"

The nurse looked up from her clipboard; seeing only her crazy, cancerous hospice patient, she rolled her eyes and resumed scribbling.

"Don't mind Sasha," Quentin told Death. "She thinks I'm insane."

Death raised her gaze. Full cheeks, button chin, a nose that turned up at the tip. Eyes that had seen the births of all things and the finalities of most. Curly hair that could use a good tame.

"Well?" Quentin shifted in his bed, moving a tube that had gotten caught beneath his right thigh. "I'm old now, darling. I'm not as patient as I used to be."

Death's flat mouth quirked at the corners. She appreciated bad puns. But silent she remained.

After six increasingly tense seconds, Quentin groaned. "Oh, fine, I'll say it. You broke your promise."

Death straightened. Unslouched her shoulders. Spoke.

I do not break promises, child.

The eldritch tone didn't belong with her cherubic lips. Or, as Quentin considered their history, perhaps they went together all too well.

"You did," he insisted. "And now I'm cross. You'll have to take me when I'm feeling cross. with it."

Finishing with her clipboard, Sasha clicked her pen and faced the room's octogenarian occupant. "You alright, Quentin?"

"No, Sasha." Quentin kept his eyes on Death. "I just said I'm cross."

"Sure you are, hon." Sasha moved to leave but stopped with one foot in the hall. "Need anything before I clock out?"

"Only your undying love."

"All yours," Sasha said in a monotone. "'Night." She flicked off the overhead light and closed the door.

Illumination sprang up around Death, a soft white glow with neither source nor shadow. Behind her, a quartet of lonely streetlights shone through the rain-streaked window.

Death spoke again. I broke no promise.

Quentin crossed his arms, feigning frustration. "Nonsense. You remember how it happened, right?" He could barely picture the scene himself, ages ago as it had been.

Death's pale hand came up to Quentin's arm. Fingernails painted maroon, with a chip in the pinky. A red-jeweled wedding ring on her fourth finger.

I cannot forget.

Then true memory sprang like starlight from her skin to envelop Quentin's body. And he remembered.


It was a spring evening much like this one. Same rain, same darkness. But the world had been younger then, fresh and fecund with possibility in the mind of a twenty-three-year-old strolling the sidewalks of Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.

Protected by an umbrella, he whistled, sang, and smiled in equal measure. The expression ended beneath his eyes, which darted across every alley and shadow. Stories of muggings and worse had haunted his Midwestern imagination for three months, but so far he'd skirted the nightmares with equal parts juvenile strategy and justifiable luck.

Until tonight.

At five past nine, he crossed Sixth Avenue. His gaze passed over the rows of benches bordering the pitiful patch of grass New Englanders called a city park. It stopped on a huddled form shivering at a streetlight's edge.

Don't stop, his friends had told him. Don't fall for their tricks. That's how they take your wallet and your life.

Seeing as none of those friends had witnessed the Big Apple beyond the big screen, Quentin pshawed their advice.

The curled-up body didn't move as he approached. Ignoring the fear that roiled his gut, Quentin touched the form's shoulder. It turned, revealing a beautiful, blood-streaked face shrouded by a black plastic poncho. The woman stared at him, expression calm despite her injuries, and his own emotions settled into a placid slumber.

"You, okay?" he asked. Stupid question.

The woman nodded, then sat up. She raised her face to the rain, letting it wash away the fresh blood. Scrapes and bruises marred her complexion, and her nose twisted at an unnatural angle.

"I'm not gonna hurt you," Quentin said. "Promise. Do you wanna go to a hospital?"

The woman met his eyes, then smirked. Quentin didn't see why that was funny.

"Here." Taking her left hand, he pulled her to her feet. Her grip was strong, confident, like his mother's had been.

Then she spoke. Thank you, Quentin.

Quentin blinked. "Hey, uh, how do you know my name?"

Ignoring him, the woman scanned the ground as if searching for something.

"Who did this to you?" Quentin asked, feeling strangely like a third wheel in a two-person conversation.

Men, she said, still looking around.

"What men? Did you know them?"

Of course.

"You wanna report them to the police?"

She shook her head. Their day will come.

Quentin nodded as if that had been a perfectly sane, mortal response. Then, as if snapping out of a trance, he shifted his umbrella to shield her from the rain. "Sorry. Can I help you find something?"

The woman paused. She met Quentin's eyes, and in her stare he found the swirling black depths of the cosmos, the arcing paths of all lives lived and yet to be, dancing in an eternal ring around her pupils.

"You have pretty eyes," he said. He smiled because he meant it.

The woman snorted. I will find it. Then she zipped away into the night, her body shifting into an amorphous shadow that vanished beyond the streetlights.

Quentin shrugged. "Geez. New York." He took a step to leave the park but stopped when a silvery glint caught his eye. Where his foot had been lay a simple ring of woven metal. Its two strands swam together in a perfect circle before tapering into a mount for a spherical, blood-red gemstone.

When he picked it up, his fingers sensed something hidden in the silver. Impossible, yawning darkness stretched upward to meet a shimmering tendril of pure white light. In their intersection lay a universe, filled to the microscopic brim with souls and stardust.

"Hey!" he called, holding the ring up to the light. "Is this it?"

She reappeared in front of Quentin, face glowing with desire, poncho dripping steam. Her manicured fingers, still caked with dried blood from where her attackers had stomped on her wrist, snatched the ring.

Something like a smile settled on her lips.

April the twenty-second, she said. Sixty-six years from now.

Quentin's own smile dissipated. "What?"

You will live a long life. When she spoke, her words seared themselves onto Quentin's mind like a brand on his consciousness. We will make sure of it. And when your time comes, I will return.

Before Quentin could ask what she meant, or how she could possibly know the secrets of his mortality, or whether he could have her phone number, she was gone.


Death removed her hand from Quentin's arm. A heart monitor beeped in the background, a metronome winding down to his demise.

As you remember, I kept my promise, she said. Are you ready?

Quentin's mouth worked soundlessly for long moments. "No," he finally managed to say. "You forgot something."

Death's eyes narrowed. Quentin, I—

"—cannot forget, yeah, I know." Quentin coughed again, cursing the cigarettes he'd quit half a lifetime ago. "You said you'd return when my time came."

And I have.

Quentin shook his head. "No, old friend. My time passed long ago."


The man stood on the bridge, waiting for Death.

Cold winter waters surged in the depths, welcoming him into a dreamless sleep, forevermore. But he couldn't jump just yet.

"She'll be here," Quentin whispered. In his fingers he rolled a cigarette he'd been too scared to light. He hadn't smoked in two years, but the temptation had overwhelmed him in a corner shop off Fifth. One more pack for the long journey down. But by the time he'd reached his final destination, the boiling urge had simmered into a petty, insubstantial desire.

The woman with the curly hair and the infinite eyes hadn't shown. And as Quentin bounced on the balls of his feet, shivering in the first November snowfall, he felt like a schoolboy who'd been stood up for a date.

Somehow that feeling was worse than the divorce. Worse than losing custody. Worse than the layoffs and the lingering cough that had popped up when the autumn leaves started falling. It made him want to wither and fade like those old oaks in Central Park who shed their vitality before the long slumber of a New York winter.

"Come on," he hissed, steam billowing from his frozen lips. "Let me do this."

She didn't.


Death crossed her hands in her lap. Her fingers fidgeted with the gemstone in her ring.

It was not your time.

"Shoulda been," Quentin muttered. Then, louder, "Why'd you let me live?"

Death stopped fidgeting. He asked me to.

Quentin eyed the ring. "Who?"


Death's hand came up once more, moving toward the table beside Quentin's bed. She touched a baby-blue picture frame displaying a crotchety old man with a screaming toddler in his lap. Quentin refused to acknowledge any similarities between the crotchety man and himself.

"Why?" Quentin asked, already knowing the answer.

Because you needed to meet your grandson.

Quentin thought he'd run out of tears.

He needed to know the hard-won warmth of your love. A love unappreciated by the one to whom you promised your life.

Quentin's wedding band sat on the table next to the frame. He couldn't bring himself to sell it.

He needed to know your struggles, your stories, and your strength.

A cough forced its way from Quentin's lips, then two more. He felt his body slipping, sliding, falling away...

And when this thirteen-year-old boy attends his grandfather's funeral, and sees the resting smile on his face, and remembers the depth of your compassion for those who need help, he will decide to become a doctor.

Death brushed Quentin's tear-stained cheek with a finger. It was a lover's touch, platonic yet passionate, and it stilled the dying man's shriveled lungs.

He will grow. He will study. And he will rid this world of the cancer that wracks your mortal form.

Quentin exhaled. His final breath hung at his lips, stilled by Death's touch, waiting for her command.

You cared, Quentin. So will he. Now, are you ready?

Closing his eyes, Quentin cracked a smile. "All yours."


This story is based on "Death's Messengers," a fairy tale collected by the Grimm Brothers, for the Tales Retold challenge on Vocal.


About the Creator

Addison Horner

I love fantasy epics, action thrillers, and those blurbs about farmers on boxes of organic mac and cheese. MARROW AND SOUL (YA fantasy) available February 5, 2024.

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Comments (2)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock9 months ago

    Beautifully told. You brought tears to my eyes. A message, hope & prayer for what is yet to come.

  • Mark Gagnon9 months ago

    Masterfully crafted and presented. I had never heard of that tale.

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