A hand came gently to rest on the shoulder of Victor Borassus. The hand was cold, it's grip soft, almost tender. Victor shied away from it and the hand let him, but the grip neither tightened, nor loosened, it only remained as it was.
Turning, victor saw a man with blue eyes, neatly trimmed beard, and short black hair. It was a face he had seen in his dreams for many long years, starting on the night... but he did not think about that night.
Rage built inside him, rising like a wave before crashing against a rocky shore of knowing. Knowing that it was not the face of Anthony that he saw, only a memory of a memory of a dream. Anthony was...
“It's time to go,” the voice was soft without being gentle. Unkind without being cruel. Compelling without demanding. The kind of voice that read out stops on a public transit system, calming, detached. It was not a request.
“I'm not ready yet.”
Anthony's image sighed and stepped away, though Victor could still feel that cold, almost comforting hand on his shoulder. Slipping hands into the pockets of his trousers, Anthony, the ghost of Anthony, shook its head as though Victor were being purposely dense. As though it were saddened by what it had to do.
“Most people aren't,” said the ghost that was not a ghost.
“It's not fair.”
“That, my friend, depends entirely on your point of view.”
“Don't you dare call me friend,” Victor's voice held acid, but his face belied the truth. Fear shone in his eyes, fear, disappointment, perhaps even hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe, there was something he could do. “Why are you wearing his face?”
Death sighed again, running a hand through Anthony's jet-black hair. They did not want to be there; they could not be anywhere else. “I get asked that a lot,” they said, after a long moment. “Never came to an answer I liked, though. One person, a philosopher from ages ago suggested that people would come to me more easily if I wore a loved one's face. And while that has happened, it's no more or less common than the anger you feel.”
“You don't choose?”
Victor fought the urge to throw his arms around Anthony's neck, to kiss him and beg for forgiveness. A forgiveness he could never receive, even if Anthony would have ever given it to him. He knew that, if he touched the image of him again, that would be it. The final curtain, exit stage left without hope of an encore.
“Who are you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Aren't you supposed to be riding a horse?”
“I did once or twice. I stepped up beside a man who was hanged astride a horse made of the night sky, and he wept to see me. A more common reaction than anything else. Though not always in sorrow.”
“People are happy to see you?”
“As I said, most people aren't ready yet. Only most, you understand. That leaves some who welcome my arrival, whose tears are of joy at the journey finally being over. I think those are my favourites, the ones who know their time has come.”
“Easier for you to take?”
“I'm not something you can fight, Victor.”
“You're something that can be avoided,” Victor tried to step back, to put distance between himself and the mockery of Anthony. “Something that can be missed.”
“No. I'm not.”
They sighed again, looking at him with something that was almost like pity, or even longing. Drawing a hand out of their pocket, Death showed Victor a small ball of light. It was beautiful, formed of every possible colour and hue, drifting and changing as he watched. It was terrible, its colours blending in a stomach-churning kaleidoscope of violent, clashing light.
“You see,” said Death slowly, as though it was difficult to speak about, but Victor cut them off.
“Give that to me.”
“Once upon a time it wasn't. Then for a short while it was. Now, I'm afraid, it's not.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have been sent to me, you see. From the moment of your birth to now, you have been making your way through the cosmos into my hand.”
“You're a thief!”
“Sometimes people do insist on saying that. 'Lo did the Reaper Man steal from the world all that was bright and gay.' Yet look at me, Victor, not this face I wear, look at me for what I am. Do you truly think me as something evil? A thief?”
Victor looked, ready to shout until his throat was raw at the injustice, the unfairness of it all. Yet Death, under the glamour of Anthony's beautiful face, did not strike him as a thief. Even when they slipped the ball back into their pocket, Victor did not feel as though anything had been taken from him. Only that something he had carried was now where it belonged. As though he had simply returned a lost wallet.
Death looked at him as though he were something curious to be studied. Something to be understood. A memory to be collected, like a sunset off the Amalfi Coast with - but no. No that was not possible.
“If that... If I am something sent to you, who sent me? God?”
“You don't know!?”
“Do I look like a god to you? No. I don't know what comes next, that's another thing they tend to ask me. I don't truly know what came before, and I don't know what comes after. But I've been waiting for you, since your beginning. And I'll treasure you, of that you can be sure.”
“So, I'm a gift.”
“Of a kind. You are your own person, you belonged to only yourself, despite the chains that others might have tried to tie around your neck.”
“Who sent me?”
“Whom do you think?”
“Life. But wouldn't... but wouldn't Life be your opposite?”
Death came closer, the phantom grip on Victor's shoulder never changed. It was still there, steady, cold, welcoming. He almost felt that if he turned his head, he would see someone standing there, an old friend long missed. A sense that, after a long trip, he had finally come home.
He shrugged, watching Death as they contemplated his question. He had not expected it to be so difficult to answer, but the tiny lines of concentrated he had always loved on Anthony's face now stood out between Death's eyebrows. But Anthony was... yes, perhaps it was time to say it, to let go the hope that maybe he had been wrong.
Anthony was dead. Exactly as the apparition before him had said, 'lo did the Reaper Man steal from the world all that was bright.' There was nothing left but the answers to his questions. The questions that might - but no, the light was already in the Reaper's pocket.
“Am I already dead?”
“You asked if life was my opposite. And I still don't know how to answer that. We came into being at the same time, you understand, them and I. For what felt like an eternity, for what was an eternity, we existed side by side as the universe coalesced around us.
“They were busy in those days. Their powers growing with their every thought, bringing into the universe light and life and wonderful beauty. And I was there, waiting, though then I knew not what for.”
“You were waiting to destroy what they created.”
“No,” Death sat down on the air and leaned forward, elbow on knee, mimicking the exact posture Anthony had always used when explaining something complicated. “I don't destroy anything. I don't create anything. I simply collect them.”
They looked as though they were sitting, Victor's mind supplied the idea of a park bench. The bench where he had asked Anthony to marry him, but he banished the thought. He refused to see Anthony's face before him, ready to deliver a lecture; instead forcing the image away, leaving Death floating in space.
“So, Life would be God, then. It only makes sense I guess, and you're... not. What's the opposite of God?”
“God is that which creates all,” said Death, idly scratching at Anthony's beard. “But Life created neither themself nor me. So, they cannot be God, we came into the world as we were, and they learned their purpose so fast, created so much. And I, well I learned to love them. Them and all their creations.
“It took me a long time to realize what was happening. Took us a long time to understand what we were to each other. A long time, even by our reckoning, to know the truth.
“Each thing that they created, they meant as a gift for me, you know. They made things to make me smile, and to make me cry. They created wonderful things for me, but I could not have them before their time was up, and I could not stay with Life. We are two sides of the same coin, connected but distinct. Together yet separate.”
“When did you see them last,” despite himself, Victor felt a sympathy with the thing that wore Anthony's face.
“I see them every day and every night. When the sun rises in the morning, I watch the birth of a new day. And when it dies, it comes to me. With the dawning of each year, I see the wonders they have created, and on the last night of each, I come, and I collect the memories of those wonders. In the end, everything that will ever be comes to me.”
“Even Life,” Victor suddenly understood, as though the ground beneath his feet had fallen away to reveal the breadth of eternity. He saw what he imagined Death saw, the infinite glories of everything that is, was, or ever would be. But he saw the tragedy there, too. The fact that all that is or was or ever would be, must come to an end, and only then could Death have the gifts that had been meant for them.
Looking at Death, through them into the infinite vastness of creation, Victor thought he could see something else too. Glowing in the distance, seemingly close enough to reach out and touch, was a light. It was beautiful. It was everything he wanted, and it meant everything to him.
“What happens next?”
“How could you not know? You're Death for Christ's sake! You must have the answers.”
“Life could never explain where what they created came from. I cannot explain where what I reap goes. I only know that I keep every gift they have ever given me, I hold them close and one day, at the end of it all, I'm going to show it to them.”
Tears trailed down his cheeks at the thought. Death had not explained it, but at some point so long ago that only the oldest stars remembered it, they had been parted from Life. Now they sat waiting, slowly collecting everything that the other created. Waiting until, at the end of it all, they would collect their other half too.
Words, names, curses, and fears floated through his mind. Before him, he saw the image of Anthony, seated as though on a bench, waiting for him as he had often waited before. He saw a tall, androgenous figure in a long, dark robe grasping a tall scythe with a skeletal hand. He saw a woman with dead black hair, milk white skin and a large ankh on a gold chain around her neck. He saw - but the images blended together.
Men and women and people he could not judge floated before him. They were tall, short, skeletal, monstrous, comforting, terrible, joyful, sad, menacing. Then, there was only a darkness. Not the absence of light, but a shade of colour that he had never seen, a figure clothed from what he imagined dark mater was made of.
Finally, Anthony sat on air before him, for all the world looking as though he were waiting for the bus. Death looked up at him, Anthony's eyes showing a dispassionate concern, almost as though something too far way for him to do anything about was at risk of falling over.
“What do I do?”
“It's easiest to accept it,” said Death, standing. “Shake my hand, if you'd like. Or turn around. Either works.”
Victor held out a shaking hand. The phantom grip that had been on his shoulder falling away as Death's fingers closed around his own. Sensation bled away, replaced with... something else. It was... It was...
“I'm not ready yet,” he said, and was gone.
“Most people aren't,” Death said, looking down at the hand that was no longer Anthony's. Instead, it was their own, just the same as it had been since the beginning of time. “But that doesn't make any difference really. Except to me.”
Death remembered Anthony, of course. The man's reaction had been, in a strange way that millennia of handling human being had never made sense to Death, a mirror of Victor's. He had been sad, regretful, managing to stick around for hours of real time after the car crash just to get one last look at his husband.
He had failed, of course. Haunting was not an achievable dream. And those few echoes that hung around old places where many people died were not truly souls anyway. At least Death did not think so. They had collected those people, after all. And nothing was ever left over.
“I hope the next one will be easier,” they said to no one, though secretly hoping Life could hear them. “Too many of those too close together just reminds me how much I miss you.”
Turning around, death found themself looking down on an old woman named Elenore Ridgeway. She wore her age the way a Queen might her crown, and Death smiled to know they were in their own body.
“It's time to go,” they said.
“I know,” replied Elenore, taking Death's hand.
About the Creator
Writing has been a hobby of mine for years, so I'm just thrilled to be here! As for me, I love writing, dogs, and travel (only 1 continent left! Australia-.-)
I hope you enjoy what you read and I can't wait to see your creations :)
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
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